Tuesday, December 28, 2004


How much is a manual worth?

The value of a manual is no longer a philosophical question for me. I know from experience that users don't read manuals, and so many companies, especially in software, don't bother to print them. Some bright sparks argue that if you need a manual, the product is too complicated anyway.

But last week a bought a complicated product, and it didn't come with a manual. My used Mazda came straight off the docks of Japan, looking for a loving home in New Zealand after being rejected by its native land as too old. It's a nice car, but never intended for export. Mazda never produced an English language manual for it. Sure I can figure how to turn the ignition and the lights on, but there are still many knobs and button I don't quite get. And what I can't see, like the innards of the engine, is an even greater mystery. Fortunately, a company in New Zealand specializes in translating Japanese language car manuals. I can get one on my model for $50. Is it worth it, I wonder? I'm not sure it will explain the most perplexing device, the Alpine stereo, which may not have been factory installed.


How to doom a great idea

From Robin Good's site found a link to an interesting Web visualization tool, Omniscope. The software offers something I've been long interested in: the ability to make "dynamic queries" (to see the change in query results simultaneously as one changes the query.) I wrote my Master's thesis partly around this topic, and it is great to see a potentially mass market product out there fill this need. To enable dynamic queries, Omniscope makes use of "alphasliders", an innovation developed at the University of Maryland in the 1990s.

Unfortunately, the implementation of Omniscope requires a special downloaded plug-in to read the "IOK" files. I can't understand why anyone would take the effort these days to develop a product that requires yet another "free viewer". Users don't want to download something they won't use but occasionally. The marketplace is littered with failed free viewers. Not even the might of Sun can compel people to download Java if it isn't preinstalled. The hassle of downloading aside, every third party plug in is yet another opportunity for one's computer to become burdened with bugs and system conflicts.

Iokio, the makers of Omniscope, have a demo on their site created in Java that doesn't need a viewer. They should have stuck to open source, even if it took more thought on how to make money from that approach.

Saturday, December 18, 2004


No simple recipe for internationalization

Been scanning a new volume edited by Nuray Aykin called Usability and the Internationalization of Information Technology. Like most people involved in human centered design, I am fascinated with international differences, both for practical reasons of needing to think how applications travel, and out of a more personal interest in global cultures (my first degree was in Asian studies.)

Aykin's book is the first substantive book on usability and internationalization in some while. Tony Fernandes wrote Global Interface Design a decade ago, when he worked at the now defunct Claris Corporation. Aykin's volume is more detailed, but really doesn't cover any more ground. It's another very general survey written by largely US-based authors for a largely US-based audience saying things that are a bit obvious to people who have worked in the field (e.g., date formats differ). The only really interesting material in either book is when the authors write about experiences with specific countries (Ferandes covers Japan a bit; the Aykin volume touches on China.)

What is needed is more case studies of usability for specific countries. Warning people that one's home conventions don't travel isn't sufficient guidance to how to design right for different markets. There is no formula to make software "global." It needs to be adapted and localized by teams in each market. General but detailed guidance on the needs of each market won't be enough to make it usable, but could help make the designs flexible enough to be adaptable.

Earlier this year I chatted with a usability specialist at BBC World News, which translates into dozens of languages. My mind raced with questions about such things as what button conventions one can use when text didn't read from left to right. The answer I left with was that there are no conventions yet for many things. People are getting exposed to a mix of Euro-American centric and localized designs, and one is never sure how a user group will react. It may depend not just on the nationality, but the education and travel experiences of the users.

Give me more case studies.

Saturday, December 04, 2004


When "loyalty" alienates, when loyalty's tested

There's an ugly problem: companies decide to be obnoxious toward a customer because they don't fit this week's promotion strategy. In one day I was twice hassled, in opposite ways, for being at the wrong end of this week's promotion.

First, I made the mistake of walking into a store I hadn't visited before after seeing their advertising supplement in the newspaper that day. I was greeted at the entrance by two polo-shirted staff who asked if I was a member of the "Summit Club." Huh?, I said. I was told that only club members could shop that day, and the public could shop tomorrow. I could look around if I liked, just not shop. I would need to come back when they decided I was eligible to shop. I don't know what the Summit Club is, and more importantly, could now care less to join it. Perhaps some existing customer felt special for having a card and getting a special shopping day, but the shop managed to alienate a potential customer in the process.

My second insult that day came when I discovered my broadband connection went down for no apparent reason. I called the good folks at the ISP to sort out the problem, only to get a recorded message about help staff not being available to talk to me do to the "overwhelming" response to the new promotional pricing offer. (Funny how companies try to appear as though they are innocent victims of circumstances they had no part in creating.) In this case, I'm a "loyal" customer who is trying to stay a customer and finding that new customers, who are getting a better price than I paid for my contract, are displacing me for the ISP's attention. I spend nearly two hours on hold listening to Carpenters music waiting for help. The problem took less than a minute to resolve.

Loyalty is a concept that has imploded on itself. It is no longer meaningful, having become so ubiquitous. People used to expect occasional incentives for trying a firm out, or a bonus for repeat business. But when all marketing is based on such "incentives", customers no longer see them as special. Rather, customers feel punished for not playing the games the marketeers devise. I don't feel special for having to carry umpteen loyalty cards in my wallet in order to get a discount on anything I buy, since businesses no longer offer sale prices except to people who feudalisticly submit their personal details to the mother company.

It's harder to acquire a new customer than keep an old one, says the marketing cliche. But if it's hard to get new customers in the first place, why scare them away by making them feel second class? Every businesses need new customers, hard as they are to acquire. And if existing customers are so important, why piss them off when seeking new customers?

Thursday, December 02, 2004


Software upgrades for consumer electronics?

How would you like to buy a consumer electronics device like a DVD recorder, and know that it wouldn't be out-of-date next year? I would, and I briefly thought I saw a revolution against "planned obsolescence" when I came across an ad from Philips Electronics on MSN Hotmail touting the Nexperia chip.

The ad said the chip can "respond to new developments in technology." If some new multimedia or mobile feature or standard is developed, one can load it on the Nexperia chip and not need to swap hardware. Unlike traditional consumer/mobile electronics chips (ASICs), which are "hardwired" to perform their functions, the Nexperia is a programmable System on a Chip (SOC), which means you can load new versions of software on it much like you load new software versions on a PC. That's because the Nexperia is really a PC chip of sorts, a microprocessor that runs Linux, meaning that the functionality of a consumer device comes from the software and not the hardware, and the functionality is essentially "platform independent." Philips promises this approach offers "flexible, future-proof solutions."

As I investigated this wonder more thoroughly, I discovered increasing amounts of technical gobbledygook. It turns out the Nexperia ad is intended for engineers designing mobile and consumer devices, not for consumers themselves. (So much for targeted ads on MSN). It is not Philips consumer electronics division that is hawking Nexperia, it is the semiconductor division, who sell to other consumer electronics companies. The upgradability is merely a way to prevent Sony, Samsung or whoever, from building a box and finding it overtaken by market technical developments before they are able to ship it. In other words, it's about preventing the box manufacturers from being stuck with dated inventories. Once the consumer pays for and takes possession of the box, the manufacturer could care less how out of date it gets. Planned obsolescence for the consumer lives on. Arguably, for consumers who like to buy factory-new products that are last years model, the pickings will be slimmer in future, a second-order loss for consumers.

We aren't yet at the point of consumer upgradability for consumer devices. The manufacturers don't yet see it in their interest. But it is in the users' interest, and someone willing to break ranks with the planned obsolescence crowd will make money from this. Consumer devices are becoming PCs, and can be programmed. If manufacturers don't supply the means to allow consumers to reprogram their devices, socially conscious hackers will. Consider the marvelous case of the hackers who enabled the iPod to talk to PCs. Apple had to respond, and by shedding their parochial attitude, expanded the market enormously.

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