Just my thoughts

Crowdsourcing and the Power of Social

June 21, 2013

Facing an imposing deadline to come up with a witty new blog post, I did what any smart, loquacious, (semi) young professional would do - I asked Facebook what I should write about. My social circle contains professional contacts, co-workers, family, friends from high school, neighbors, and drinking pals. All-in-all, a pretty good representative of the cross section of America, wouldn’t you say?

I expected that the first round of answers would all serve to stimulate brainstorming, and I wasn’t let down. These included:

  • " The miracle of the band Rush finally getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.". —I have to say, coming from upstate New York, right by the Canadian border, I did ponder this very question quite often. I’m not sure all the CMOs of America are pondering it though. Well, at least not those South or West of New York state.
  • "Is there such a thing as an all black cat?" —I’m not sure that matters to the board rooms of America, but I have to admit, I did Google it and the answer is “yes”. But again, probably not going to translate into a net benefit statement.
  • How about writing about the troubles of finding a great topic to write about and the ways you go about finding that topic”—Hmmm, that might come in handy. Truly the bread-and-butter of marketing - talk about the problem.
  • How companies are turning to flat design and what does it mean? — I might be a bit too opinionated to answer this, and clearly based on other blog posts it’s a polarizing topic. Polarizing…hmmm…”Why are companies adding filters to their design?” Filed away for a future joke.

To help drive towards a tighter blog post topic, I added some qualifiers: it needs to be about branding or technology. My friends didn’t let me down…here is what I got:

  • "Does rebranding something three times in 10 years make sense?" - Does it?
  • "A blog [post] about being authentic."—I would like to hear more and CMOs need to hear more.
  • "I think you should expound on the Coors Lite bottle and the blue mountains....that's GREAT branding"—Now we are getting somewhere. The market research alone would be fun! Where is that corporate credit card?
  • "Whose work is it really? Crowdsourcing your job responsibilities."—Darn, they are on to me! Time to write.

Did my experiment work? In less than 10 minutes “we” went from very general and interesting ideas, to some really specific topics that all could have worked. But how did the crowdsourcing work and how can it work for you? Based on my research and experimentation with crowdsourcing, here are my thoughts:

  • Build a social circle and build respect within it. Most people say “build a following”. I chose not to say “following” because I truly respect the people in my circle and I would hope they have a similar respect for me. You have a ton of followers you say? Great—so did Charles Manson. They are all together in prison now.
  • Provide encouragement. Liking people’s comments is a good start. So is commenting to acknowledge their input.
  • Mediate. Directing the conversation doesn’t dampen it, but instead strengthens it. Just make sure you are considering all options before narrowing your direction. And remember #1 - respect your circle.

I know we all like to believe that we are “creative geniuses” who just invents stuff out of thin air all day, and indeed, sometimes that happens. But other times, maybe a little crowdsourcing is just thing you need to get the ideas flowing. It sure beats sitting in your office, staring at the wall, all alone at 1:30am.

I would like to thank my friends for helping me with this post, and of course, dear reader, I would love to hear your thoughts as well. Leave your comments below and perhaps we can take this experiment in a new direction! I also have to thank my co-worker Abeer Kadhem who coded this post for the Web, only to hear me say that we were not going to use it on our company blog…thanks pal.

Crowdsourcing and the Power of Social

Change book cover art work for iBooks

April 10, 2010

If you bought an iPad and you are as frugal as I am (wait, do those two things go together?), then you undoubtedly downloaded a few of the free books from the iBooks store. I am really glad that Apple repurposed content from the Project Gutenberg collection of public domain books. Project Gutenberg has an astounding selection of classics all available for free!

But one of the things I noticed about these books is that they have a generic cover with the title appearing in dynamic text. After a little poking around in the iBooks EPUB files, I noticed that Apple is grabbing the cover art from some Apple specific data they add to the EPUB files (more on this in a future blog post). This makes sense since there doesn't appear to be an industry standard for displaying cover art in a reader. If there is no cover art specified, it seems they are just dynamically adding the title over a generic cover,

I started to think of a way to easily add the necessary info to the EPUB files via a perl script when I though perhaps Apple already has a way that is a little simpler. Then it occurred to me that since books appear in iTunes just like music, perhaps the same trick to add album art would work for book covers...and it did!

Here is what to do:

  1. Open iTunes and click on Books
  2. Select the book you want to add cover art to and select Get Info from the File menu
  3. Click on the Artwork tab
  4. Click the Add... button select the file that contains the image you want to use for the cover art. Alternatively, you can paste an image from your clipboard into the box.
  5. Click OK and you are done.
The next time you sync, the new cover art will appear!

A couple notes. First, it seems to impact performance of loading the iBooks shelf if you use really large images. I think it would be best to scale the image down before adding it. Second, you may ask were you can get cover art. I don't have a good answer—if you do, please leave a comment. I know for music many people would grab the CD cover from Amazon. I don't wish to tackle the legality or ethics of this, so I will leave that step up to you dear reader.

If you have a better way to add cover art or have a thought about this process, please leave me a comment.

Change book cover art work for iBooks

Password masking IS important

July 6, 2009
I am very pro usability—anyone who knows me will agree. I fight the fights that need to be fought. I go against the corporate decisions that don't benefit the user. I evangelize for Donald Norman and hang on  every word that Jakob Nielsen speaks. This is why it seems so very strange that I would be incited by an innocuously titled article, Stop Password Masking, on Dr. Nielsen contends that we—Web developers—should abandon legacy design and stop providing "little dots" instead of the actual characters that a person is typing in for their password. On the surface, this seems to make sense. After all, it's hard to type in that which you can not see. I guess I should be upfront and say this is many years as a sys-admin speaking--not a usability expert—but none-the-less I found many things flawed with the post. I would add that the designers of systems have a responsibility to protect users from compromising their account. But the main point of the article is that by not showing users what they are typing when the type a password, we are decreasing the usability of the page and also the security of the page. Here is a brief recap of the main points of the article (please read the whole article for yourself):
  1. There are very few times when a user is in actual danger of someone "seeing" what they are typing
  2. Users make more errors when they can't see what they are typing
  3. More errors means less confidence
  4. All this leads to users using simple passwords or copy/pasting passwords
One of his primary points is that a "skilled criminal" can capture you password by looking at the keyboard, not the screen. It's hard for me to argue with this as I have witnessed this and even done it. Here's the rub...I have managed users on systems large and small for the better part of 20 years. I have learned by observation that people don't have simple passwords because passwords are hard to type in without seeing, they have simple passwords because they are easy to remember. As a system administrator I know, inherently, that the weakest chain in any system is the user. And it's not because it's hard for them to type their password, it's because they want one password that is easy to remember and is somehow tied in with who they are as an individual. For this reason, I find passphrases to be a better solution because they are easy to remember and are instantly harder to hack due to their length. If someone has a hint of what you like, they may more easily crack the passphrase with shoulder surfing, but it's much harder than a simple password. Lastly, Dr.  Nielsen points out that we should abandon legacy design—I am a HUGE fan of abandoning legacy design when it makes sense. Dr. Nielsen points to both form reset buttons and password masking as being legacy the twitteratie say, EPIC FAIL! Let's focus on usability, but only when usability is really the problem. But maybe you disagree with me, leave me a comment.
Password masking IS important

What usability tests can't tell you

April 10, 2009
Excuse the headline. To be clear, I do think that usability tests are very valuable. But often times they provide little data beyond what you are testing—for instance, the labeling of the primary navigation. Yes, seasoned testers can often times extrapolate large amounts of observational data, but sometimes the really niche features of a Web site aren't so easily discovered. Users seldom provide ancillary ideas for features they may need. Instead the idea for a feature usually only occurs to a user when they needs it. So, when a feature pops up for me at exactly the time I need it, in exactly the place I need it, to me it means somebody really thought the problem through, perhaps even cared about me a little. To me it says: "hey, we want to make your life easier". All usability experts focus on the user first. That is, quite simply, what we sign up to do. As such, we often refrain from  "feature-itis"—defined as adding features for the sake of having more functionality. Additional features often times do little more than round out a sell-sheet of product benefits, hardly ever benefiting the user. But there are many times when a well conceived feature can pay off not only for the user, but for the service provider as well. And I must correct myself, when discussing this blog post with a colleague of mine, Ernie Bello, he rightfully pointed out that it's not the feature itself, but the execution of the feature that makes it usable or not. As an example, I had purchased a couple songs from the iTunes Music Store by Canadian artist Sass Jordan. I know, I know, it's 2009, but I just have this thing for Canadian rock from 2 decades ago. After listening to the two songs I had purchased (about 10 times), I decided to get a couple more. Of course, now I was regretting that I hadn't purchased the whole album and saved a little money. That's when I discovered this:

Example from the iTune Music Store Note how when returning to the album from which I have already bought a couple songs, I am prompted to complete my album. It's clear, obvious, and exactly where it should be. I am sure that many of you will point out that this is also a benefit for Apple, and that may be the case. But the point is, the very feature I wanted, existed when I needed it, and where I needed it—even thought I didn't expect it to be there. My point is that I doubt a usability test would have found the need for this feature. If I were a test subject with a task to buy a song, I would not have thought to tell a usability tester that it would be great to have a feature to complete an album, just in case I change my mind in the future. I didn't even think about it as a feature until I actually needed it. But somebody thought about it for me, and thought about how I could use it. And yes, with that feature in place, it can be tested and can be validated. What little features have you noticed or even created that have really made a big difference? Leave me your comments...
What usability tests can't tell you

The new facebook

March 19, 2009
I must say up front that I don't want to make a judgement on the new facebook homepage layout. I could, but I won't. What is infinitely more interesting to me is everyone else's opinion (hopefully that makes me a better usability designer!). It is fascinating to me that there is such an uproar over the new facebook design. Some of the comments I hear--"it's too cluttered", "it's to confusing", "there is too much going on"--to be honest, are complaints I have always had. Even more confusing, are comments such as: "I can't see what people are doing any more", "I don't know anyone's status updates unless I look at their pages". It took me a long time to understand these last set of comments and I believe that it is people that have bookmarked their profile page as their homepage and are only seeing their own posts and not their friends. So what does all this mean? Will facebook fail? Should/could this have been avoided? I personally see a natural evolution in a widely used Web site that is responding to pressure from competition (e.g. Twitter). I don't think this will be the downfall of facebook. But I do think this could have been avoided. How? Better promotion of the changes, a longer transition cycle, an initial opt-in period where they could have solicited feedback. The key take-away is that they can listen to their community, even if it is a small minority of whom are complaining, and see if they can either meet them part way, or help educate them to the benefits of the change. That's what I think, what do you think?
The new facebook