Saturday, November 26, 2005

Random Saturday Blogging Bits - Part 2

It's a quiet weekend in D.C., what with everyone heading back to their hometowns for the holidays. Cold and a bit breezy outside, I've decided to spend a low-key evening doing some reading at the local Starbucks on Capitol Hill. It's 2 level store, with a laid back, student/work friendly environment upstairs, plenty of comfy chairs, a conference room, as well as fireplace. It's one of my favorites, and I like to come here at least 1 weekend a month to read, catch up on work related materials, and browse current trends in the blogosphere and design communities.

Well, anyhow, sitting here tonight and a few things have come across my mind:

  1. I've been offered a new job as of Wednesday afternoon(with a 3rd inquiry arriving late that evening). I actually had two offers come across my inbox, both offering a sizable salary increase, and more importantly, a chance to do more interesting work than at a point in my career, while working with extremely talented people. Of course, that's how it should be when starting a new job. Nonetheless, I can't help but feel extremely fortunate. For a mostly self-taught schmuck (some great mentorship along the way) such as myself, who struggled in high school, and never finished college, uprooted his life from the west coast to DC without the support (financially speaking, I of course had the emotional support of a lot of friends along the way) of anyone, I find it amazing that I'm now being offered an opportunity to work alongside some of the best, and most well known user experience professionals in DC. My hope is that it'll be a long-term, mutually satisfying experience that will provide me with plenty of opportunities to learn and grow along the way.
  2. Staying on a similar thread, one of the reasons I chose the job offer I did is because of the tuition reimbursement program combined with the opportunity to be learn and grow with proven industry professionals. If there is one thing this rather difficult past year has given me, it is a more clear understanding of my long term professional goals. I left my first job this year with no clear understanding of what I wanted to do next, and fell into a technical support project management position, which, while a painful experience, it was also one of the primary drivers for discovering what I wanted to do long term. I always tell people that the world is too rich with opportunities to waste your time dating people you're not attracted to, working a job that you don't love, and generally not following your passions. Those of us in rich, Western countries are extremely fortunate due to all the opportunities afforded us, and shame on those who are capable, but don't take advantage (while helping others, of course). So, for the long term, I've decided to reenter school, focus on getting my degree (as well, later a graduates), with the end goal being the ability to command opportunities to hold a title of Interaction Designer as part of a premier User Experience team, with knowledge and skills that afford me the ability to design both online and offline experiences. I'm particularly fond of the work and research Peter Morville is conducting in the realm of Ambient Findability, as well as the research being done at the Stanford Captology project, and finally Wayfinding and Transmedia. To my relatively uninformed mind, all of these must intersect at some point, along with Information Architecture and Interaction Design, for a flexible career that will provide an endless list of interesting projects in our ever more information rich and complex society.
  3. With the first two points being a bit more long winded than anticipated, I'll keep this one short with a few interesting links to check out:
  • RBirds Pattern Observations : NYC Design firm publishes obversations and critiques of design, marketing and brand patterns in common consumer products. Not the most in-depth research, but certainly interesting, and available for free.
  • Rbirds About Design Blog : While most of my design reading on the web relates strictly to the web, it's nice to get insights from a company doing real design and marketing work for large consumer products in the offline realm. Worth reading, and perhaps grabbing the RSS feed.
  • The Curtis Creek Manifesto: There seems to be fair amount of information designers on the web currently interested in the use of comics as an effective way to present information, the Curtis Creek Manifesto on fly fishing seems to be a favorite. Apparently, I really need to read Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud.
  • Paul Graham on Web 2.0: Paul, per usual, shares his incredible insights, and hits upon a few thoughts I'd been mulling over regarding Web 2.0, as well as few new insights. A must read for those interested in the current state of the web, where it's going, and why we in the web community are so excited.

Finally, in closing out this post, I realized as I was typing, that my favorite holiday has just passed and I didn't take time to write about it. So, please, indulge me for a few moments. I love Thanksgiving, it is without a doubt my favorite holiday. I try to cook the entire meal every year, as I find it to be an incredibly rewarding experience, and what better way to celebrate Thanksgiving than by feeding and giving sustenance to the friends and family that you're so thankful for all year. Though I wasn't able to be with the people most important this year, and was unable to cook for anyone, I'm still incredibly thankful for all the opportunities being brought about at this time in my life, and the people who've supported me along the way.

Cheers

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Google Influence

I don't mean for this site to be all about praising Google, it's just that they seem to be the most interesting company around these days, especially of the 3 tech giants (Google, Yahoo, Mircosoft a.k.a GYM, though I have a hunch we're going to need to learn to fit Apple in that acronym somewhere).

Their primary advantage seems to be in the execution, and brilliant marketing strategy that I'm not sure I've completely figured out. Of course, they do trip everyonce in awhile. And for all the praise I'd like to sing about Google Analytics, they do deserve the beating they're about to take for not warning existing Urchin customers, while not being able to keep the service up. Still, for every bad move Google makes, they seem to make 9 or 10 great ones. And if not, at least they hint to a greater, untapped, and coming soon potential.

In addition, beyond all that Google does directly, they are beginning to force the preexisting tech giants to rethink their notions of the web and software in general.

Take for instance this article posted at CNET today:

Microsoft eyes making desktop apps free.

You can be sure that the only reason Microsoft is thinking of this is because of Google's threat to take traditional software to the web and serve it to us for free. It's rather amazing to think it has come to this, and stands as a testament to the power of the market. We didn't need government intervention for Microsoft to finally be threatened, we just needed to rethink the nature of the intersection between technology, business, life in general, and all those other little details that come up day to day.

Now, to be fair, I am having an extremely hard time figuring out how anyone is going to top Google. Search, or findability in general, will continue to be the single most important factor from a consumer standpoint for the foreseeable future. Search is not limited to the internet, or at least to a web broswer. Neverminnd that in a few short years, Google has already positioned itself as one of, if not the largest of the worlds advertising platforms. Continuing forward, if Google has it's way, it will be a major player in the telecom industry(say hello to completely free VOIP based WiFi cell phones), it will be major player in the health and genetic research industry, it will become a player in the realm of Space research, and it will continue to lead the path to findability in realms we haven't yet conceptualized a possibility for yet.

Don't believe me? Come back in a few short years. If you're not using a mobile version of the Google Talk I/M messenger downloaded to your cell phone, comfortably switching from a free (likely Google provided) wifi hotspot (read: your entire city) to a traditional cell connection where the wifi may be weak, it'll probably be because you're on someone elses free network. Google is accelarating the adoption of internet technologies so fast that I believe most futurists and technologists themselves are a bit surprised by it. I certainly am. The pace of innovation is astounding, and because it's being done (mostly) by Google, it's somehow comforting.

Finally, to comment on the article linked above. I can't imagine Microsoft will succeed in the realm of free software. The concerns outlined by Microsoft employees in the article are very real. Reliably tying adversting into desktop applications, especially if you're a poorly trusted firm such as Microsoft, is going to be an extremely difficult task. I wouldn't allow such software, certainly not from Microsoft, anywhere near a personal computer of mine.

However, if Microsoft does succeed at all with advertising based software, it will be in no small part due to a change heart from the software giant. No matter what anyone says, the Google mantra of "Don't be Evil" is very comforting when it is adhered to (fairly) rigorously. Microsoft is going to have a significant PR challenge in offering any free software, one that is likely to take years to turnaround significantly.

However, if Google's influence and dominance remains unchecked, Microsoft maybe able use that to their advantage to gain goodwill.

Google Analytics (or, So Long WebTrends!)

Google has announced their release of the newest version of the Urchin web analytics software that they acquired earlier this last year. The biggest surprise, it's free. At least up to 5,000,000 page views a month, and if you use Google AdSense, it's completely free.

I have to admit to feeling a bit sorry for some of the smaller players with big ideas. Hopefully there'll still be room for those folks to innovate and find their niche. However, the one company I'm having a hard time feeling any empathy for is WebTrends. I haven't used the new Google Analytics, but judging by six months spent with WebTrends(shudder), I tend to think Google stands a pretty good chance of disrupting the online analytics world if they focus on simplifying the interface.

There's a lot of things that these analytic software packages do well, but having an easy to understand user interface that scales well when dealing with a large number sites is not one of them. I used to provide technical support to roughly 90 web properties under a single umbrella organization that used WebTrends and it was the single most needlessly confusing piece of software I had ever used. WebTrends had forced migration from their Live variation, to their newer, "better" WebTrends OnDemand.

What a pile of junk.

I have no doubt that WebTrends has some very intelligent people working for their organization, their customer support is generally good, and my experience with their regional contractors was excellent. In addition, there were occasional glimmers of hope that they understood the problems inherent in their interface, some of which were occasionally improved incrementally.

However, this post isn't meant to be a direct slam at WebTrends, moreso a "I hope they clean up their act due to increased competition" post. Unfortunately, I have my doubts that this will happen in any significant manner. My best guess is that while Google will leverage their integration of AdWords and offering of a self service, free solution, making them an ever deeper, true, "Web 2.0" company. Meanwhile, WebTrends will focus on ever larger clients, and offering a better customer experience. Of course, the problem with this model is that it generally assumes a certain level of difficultly in using their software. As McAfee recently displayed (and other smart companies have known for awhile), a properly designed user interface can alleviate a lot of support necessary for a product to succeed.

Ultimately, I think WebTrends will have to change drastically, and possibly merge with the likes of Yahoo or Microsoft in order to survive in what is quickly becoming a Google dominated web.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

OS X App: Quicksilver

Been on OS X for a couple of months now, and if there's one application that stands out as incredibly useful, and that I haven't seen replicated on other operating systems, it is Quicksilver.

In 3 words:

What Linux Needs.

It offers benefits similar to the those found in Google Desktop on Windows or Apple's own Spotlight, but is easier to use, and much more focused on a singular goal.

Check it out.

Thoughts on Apple, Microsoft and the current state of Linux

I've been developing a Ruby on Rails application lately, doing so primarly on a PowerBook G4 running OS X (Tiger). As my first foray working on a Mac, it's been an interesting experience, one that I'm (somewhat) happy to continue.

Prior to OS X, I had occasionally played around with various *nix environments, but had yet to fully configure a development environment on any of them. I'm still far from a linux system administrator professional, but I feel what I have learned thus far, and what I will learn over the next few months, will only serve to help me professionally. The benefit of having your testing and development environment so closely mirror your production environment is a huge time saver, especially for those of us fairly new to server administration.

Still, as I work on this Mac, a couple of things come to mind:

  • While good, the Mac interface doesn't stand out as being leaps and bounds better than Windows from a productivity and usability standpoint. It certainly feels more "grown up", but as far as productivity in a Windowed environment, I'm positive I can be as fast, if not faster, on PC. Granted, I've been Windows user for over 10+ years, and I've only been on a Mac for 2 months, so that speed may differential may change in favor of OS X over time.
  • There are very little proprietary, closed source applicatations on either Mac or Windows that use regularly. The first two that come to mind are Microsoft Visio on the PC, and Omnigraffle on the Mac. I may dabble in graphic programs occasionally, but I am by no means a graphic designer. Other than diagramming software, there's essentially no program that I use that can't be replaced with open source software(OSS) or free web services.
  • As a software developer, my main comfort of the Mac is the stability and power of a *nix core underneath a beautiful interface. Frankly, though, if Windows was built on top of *nix variant, I would have no problem switching back to a Windows based system (and probably would).
  • Finally, now that I've seen what is possible from a visual interface and interaction standpoint using a *nix system, I'm somewhat bothered by the idea of paying for an operating system. From seeing what is possible on Mac OS X, and with the operating system as a platform becoming less significant due to the webs potential, it's become clear to me that Microsoft is going to be under significant assault over the next few years.
  • Linux is nearing significant threat levels, and while it's still mostly in the server and enterprise arenas, I'm sure it is on everyone's radar. Apple continues to chew away at Microsofts market share, and the *nix community is benefitting from better software and better compatibility, or at least easier ports. Also, Apple, directly and indirectly, benefits the open source community by the addition of such tools as SAMBA and Apache, and many others bundled right into the OS, thus giving these tools a wider audience and user base.
So that brings me back to my final point. While Google maybe the realization of everything we had thought the internet should be, Apple is slowly turning OS X into the realization of everything we had hoped an OS to be, save for one little detail:

It is not free, and it is likely that it will never be free.

It's interesting to think that of all the mind boggling brilliant contributions the open source community has contributed to Linux over time, there's been a distinct and noticeable lack of clear direction in designing a clean, attractive and highly usable user interface. Sure, we have organizations like KDE, Gnome, and others trying to standardize a human interaction model for Linux interfaces, but they all stand out for their lack of innovation, and somewhat bulky, Windows like interfaces.

It's time to rethink the standard interface on Linux. Windows is due for a significant overall next year with release of Vista, and it's learning quite a bit from OS X. The several major Linux distributors such as Novell, RedHat, and Ubuntu, as well as the consortium of developers who make up KDE and GNOME would be well advised follow that lead. Why base your user interface on a second place interface (Windows) when their is a clear leader such as Apple to base your starting points?

The Linux community may not have the resources necessary to do full scale, cohesive HCI and usability research and development on the scale of Microsoft or Apple, but it certainly start to make better decisions based upon the success and failures of both companies.

Which brings me to my final thoughts on this matter. I was browsing the Ubuntu community forums the other day, and came across a post pointing to Gnome-look.org. It's essentially a site that allows members to post user created themes and mockups for review. The site got me to thinking, I've been searching for an open source project to join, and I think I've decided what I want it to be.

I'm going to begin taking my user experience design skills to the Linux community.

I'm going to start from scratch. I'll most likely use either a basic Debian distribution, or perhaps just start off with Ubuntu. However, over the course of the next year, to two years, I'm going to start doing user research in my spare time, the primary focus being to attempt to rethink and challenge the common conceptual models that exist in Windows, Linux, and to a lesser degree, OS X.

It's also going to be directly tied into another project / weblog that I plan to launch in the couple of months, preferably before the end the of the year.