Wednesday, December 28, 2005

I am a Schmuck

File this under "totally obvious".

I'm an anti-mouse kinda guy. I want to use the keyboard as much as possible. This is somewhat of a new trend for me, but I figure if I can use the keyboard accelerators, that's less time I have to spend reaching around and pointing all over with a mouse. In the end, for most tasks, I figure the keyboard will be quicker.

Well, it's always bothered me when cycling through a page using the Tab key, especially on forms, that if I accidently tabbed one field too far, I would either have to click on the right field, or tab all the way through the page again.

Well, today, curiosity got the best of me, and I decided to Google the "previous tab" shortcut stroke. Sure enough, it's there: Shift+Tab


I'm sure it's been there for years, as it is totally logical with Microsofts interface guidelines. I will now be much happier geek.

If only someone would create a version of Quicksilver for the PC, then I would be completely set. In the meantime, the Google Desktop will have to do.

Monday, December 26, 2005

DOM Scripting - Web Design with JavaScript and the Document Object Model -- By Jeremy Keith

I mentioned this book in a post the other day, but it really deserves it's own post. I just finished the book on Saturday, and I feel comfortable saying it's without a doubt, one most well written technology books I've ever had the pleasure to read.

I was skeptical at first, up until now, I felt the same as Dave Shea (CSS extraordinaire) in the forward:

"JavaScript? No way. It's inaccessible, you know. Relying on it will make your site unusable, too. It's the root of many an evil pop-up window. I mean, it probably even kicked your dog when no one was looking...."

"... Or so I thought..."

"... In fact, the sate of DOM Scripting at the moment reminds me of where CSS was in 2002. Up to that point, CSS had been considered this quirky little web display language that no one used for anything more than font styling."

Well, in 2002 I took to the leadership at my then current company, and laid the ground work for us to transition towards CSS layouts. It was, I believe, a good decision and has been a feather in my cap for every job I've applied for since.

Since 2002, much like Mr. Shea, I've avoided the use of JavaScript in my work. I thought of it as a hack, and admittedly, in many cases and implementations I've seen, still do. Mr. Keith, however, lays a great foundation for how to go about implementing JavaScript. In one of the most methodical, almost anal retentive, approaches I've seen applied to any programming book, Keith goes case by case instructing you how to go about using the trifecta of XHTML/CSS/JavaScript to create dynamic pages that also benefit from maintaining they're accessibility.

If you're an XHTML/CSS purist such as myself, who's strayed from JavaScript due to accessibilty and clientside benchmarks, DOM Scripting by Jeremy Keith is the perfect introduction to the language. It's a rare book that will easily double as an introductory text, as well as a proper reference for best practices and proper implementation. I also picked up the Oreilly JavaScript Rhino book at the same time, and I can't imagine working with DOM Scripting with both books at my side.

Seriously, I may sound as though I'm gushing a bit, but it may be the most accessible book I've read on technology. Mr. Keith obviously knows a large majority of his audience is designer oriented web developers who have avoided JavaScript due to it's programming nature. As such, he does a remarkable job describing technology in a very human language.

Go buy it!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Local Giant -- Poor Usability Leads to a Poor Customer Experience (or why I love John Mackey)

I recently moved into a new apartment in the Columbia Heights area of Washington, DC. It's a great apartment, with a view overlooking the city, and a clear line of sight to the Washington Monument. No doubt about it, it's the best apartment I've lived in since I moved here 6 years ago.

One thing that came up recently, though, was grocery shopping. I've been fortunate to live within a 5 minute walk to a Whole Foods for the past 3 years, something I always appreciated. Nowadays, in my new apartment, I have two choices. I can walk 15 minutes to the new Columbia Heights Giant, or I can make a slightly longer jaunt down to my old stomping grounds and hit the Whole Foods in Logan Circle.

Well, yesterday, after deciding I needed a few more groceries for today, I decided to swing by the new Giant, which I really hadn't been to much since it opened. Plus, I figured, moving into the neighborhood, I had better get acquainted with it.

I have to say, it was one of the most unpleasant shopping experiences I've had in awhile. A quick list of bad encounters and other observations:

  • Store Entry. There's one entrance to the entire store, and it actually doubles as the stores only exit. To make matters worse, not only do you have street traffic coming in, but you also have people getting on/off the elevator. This leads to a high level of congestion, and carts clangin', etc. The paranoid part of me speculates that this was actually a conscious decision by management in order to more easily catch/trap shoplifters since store resides in an "up and coming" neighborhood.
  • Store Aisles. One thing Giant seems to take a bit of pride in promoting about the new store is the vast selection, and overall size. However, from a usability standpoint, they've created aisles with no mid-way breakpoint, and the signs hanging at the end of each aisle are hung fairly high, with a relatively small print (at least it seems small when reading from the other end of the aisle).
  • Employee Hiring: This is just one thing that I've noticed, and it's certainly not the fault of the employees, but it's worth noting in my opinion. One of the reasons I love shopping at WholeFoods is that they really seem to employ a sort of "behavorial hiring" practice. If you're not familiar with that term, it's pretty popular these days in the service industry, and it basically just means hiring people who are naturally well suited to customer service positions. I actually believe I'm one of those people, as any technical support position I've ever had, most of the success came because customers really enjoyed the natural people person approach. To bring this back to Giant, they seem to have no sense of what it means to hire customer focused employees. That's not to say that the Giant employees are all unpleasant to deal with, but none of them seem to enjoy interacting with customers, and it comes through.

The next few things are not so much a usability issue, per se, just small annoyances. However, they stick in my craw ;-) :

  • Floors are generally dirtier.
  • On prior visits I have seen customers snacking from the produce section, this last time I saw an employee stick her hand into the prepared food section to grab and eat a couple of french fries.
  • Bombarded with advertisements. Okay, look, I'm already in your store, I'm likely buying quite a bit of groceries, or at least as much as I believe I need. I don't need the Giant spokeswoman selling me additional goods through a recording on a loudspeaker as walk through the store.
Also, and this is again a personal issue, but as I walked through yesterday, I couldn't help but gain a sense that the entire experience was unnatural. The produce section is great, and varied, but they seemingly get produce that is likely not grown in the DC area, or even the east coast! How does it get here? Is it fresh? What sort of chemicals are they growing it with?

Simarly, walking out of the produce section, and into the meat section, everything's wrapped in skin tight plastic, in order to keep it as fresh as possible, as long as possible. No thanks, I'll take my meat as naturally as possible, and I'll likely buy it the day I need it, possibly up to two days in advance.

Finally, if you compare the aisles of your local WholeFoods or other organic markets against those of Giant/Safeway/(insert traditional supermarket), I think you'll notice something. In attempt to make sure product stands out as much as possible on already crowded shelves, the people who supply to Giant/Safeway/etc make these horribly bright and garish packages to sell they're goods. I've found on my last few trips to Giant, that this has actually made the whole experience that much more unpleasant. If I were one to be prone to random headaches, I'm pretty sure a trip to Giant would induce one.

All of this brings me to one last comment. The new Giant was built(half-assedly so) to compete with the likes of Whole Foods, and to a lesser(but growing) degree, Wegmans. I'm of the opinion now that Whole Foods is pretty much unstoppable, and here to stay. As someone who loves food, and believes that it has the power to not only sustain, but also heal, as well as bring friends and families together, I can only ask that John Mackey and the rest of Whole Foods continues forward in their success. While Giant has stumbled with their location in Columbia Heights, at least it was a stumble in the right direction. Something we probably all need to do a little more often.

Happy Holidays

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Google, AOL & speculation

Sitting here this last week, it seems there was some concern in the web community as to whether Google's purchase of a 5% stake in AOL was a misstep down an ultimately very damaging path. It's pretty well known that most tech savvy people are not fond of AOL (myself included), and that they seem to have a pretty good reputation of bringing the stock down on otherwise attractive companies.

I'm still not sure this was a good move by Google, on whole. It could turn out to be some curse that brings their stock down this year, and it would not surprise me.

However, Google made one blatantly aggressive move in this acquisition that has me extremely excited: they've requested that AOL Instant Messenger become compliant with GTalk. Combine this with the fact that Google has released the API for GTalk this past week, allowing for all sorts of mash ups with the application, and you have a foot hold for a lot of interesting mashups in the most mainstream of all I/M clients. What this means is, when mobile phone manufacturers start releasing their 3G compliant phones this coming year, we'll have mashups with the GTalk API that will allow us to use the wireless internet to make free calls on our cell phones, and not utilize any of our cell phone carrier minutes (i.e. Sprint Nextel, Cingular, etc).

This is very cool, and Google deserves a lot of credit for pushing this through. I think for Google, next year, GTalk will become they're killer application. Ideally, you should be able to connect from your cell phone, to any AIM or Gtalk client in the world, for free. Once that reaches the tipping point, you can be sure that the telecoms will slowly start to matter less and less. Will the FCC start to regulate VOIP and the internet? Let's hope not!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

ARRRRGGGGHHHH!!!!! Editing in Dreamweaver using Tables!

Ack! I'm on smallish project for a larger client, and the site templates were just handed over to me today.... It's using a table based layout, and everything's been constructed using Dreamweaver...

If I'm not mistaken, it's going to be 2006 in less than 10 days -- it's been 4 years since I've had to do an implementation such as this...

I thought this battle was over?!

Question to figure out: How do you convince an organization with 4 designers, who do most of the HTML work, that it's time to move on and that they have to learn CSS?

I've successfully transitioned other companies that I've worked for in the past, but this one is inherently more beauracratic. I will consider it a major coup if I am able to transition this organization to pure CSS within the next 6 months. I would like to do it in less.

Oh, and if you haven't already, go pick up DOM Scripting - Web Design with JavaScript and the Document Object Model by Jeremy Keith. It's the best programming book I've read in quite some time, Mr. Keith does the single best simple introduction to a programming/scripting language that I've yet seen.


Wednesday, December 14, 2005 is not so

Sorry, Yahoo - I'm not impressed. Less than a week after you're announced purchasing of my precious, and you already have it experiencing downtime.

This sucks. should've stayed the independant route a little while longer. I shudder to think what Yahoo's user experience design team will do to the was nearly perfect up until recently(though, they really should have a tag management system a la 43Folders), and Yahoo's u/x track record is pretty poor, by my judgement.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Washington Post Redesign (when did this happen?) with a cool new feature.

It appears that the Washington Post has redesigned their site to the slowly growing in popularity resolution of 1024x768. And... it looks great (at least relative to the old design).

The old site was a jumbled mess, and the Post definitely uses to the extra space to help solve that problem. Still showing they're still a bit worried about customers, they wisely use the right column for advertisements that might get cut off by smaller browsers.

Unfortunately, newspaper based websites (other than the International Herald Tribune) still suck, and the Post continues to suffer from trying to cram headlines from nearly every section of the website onto the front page.

Still, the new redesign is without a doubt an improvement. More importantly, there are hints that the Post is going to be a bit more aggressive with utilizing the web. As pointed out over on Signal Vs. Noise today, the Post is testing a new feature that allows for receiving RSS feeds of the votes made by all members of Congress (read more on the Signal v Noise blog). This is great because, in case you're not a tech geek, RSS is short for Really Simple Syndication, and it definitely earns the title. It will be great to see what kind of mashups are made with the tool. I'm sure someone will grab the feeds and start building a visual representation of the votes made on certain bills. I can see this becoming very valuable during election cycles, etc.

In addition to the RSS feeds, if you observe the URL that the this is being fed from, the Post appears to have created a section, or subdomain, on their site named Projects. If you go to it now, it only redirects to their home page. However, if they're being smart about it, they could be one of the first major print and newspaper media companies to have a beta section on their official website. Sounds cool to me. Print media is under attack by the web, and it's interesting to observe how they respond.

This appears to be a good move by the Washington Post.

A Web Based Real Rhapsody: Great News for Music Fans

Real has quietly announced a web based version of their popular music service, Rhapsody. Up until my switch from a PC to a Mac, I had been a subscriber for almost 2 years. In my opinion, it's easily the best of the digital music services.

The great news about the newest version of their software is that it's strictly a web based product, meaning you only have to login to the site using your account, and that there's no software to download, and that those on non-Windows computers (i.e. Linux and Mac) now have an alternative to iTunes.

I'm going to try and spend some time reviewing the software in the next month, but if you haven't used Real Rhapsody(in any format) yet, I highly recommend it. It's especially useful for those of us who spend quite a bit of time working on a computer, whether at home, or in the office. Most critics will highlight that you never get to "own" the music you listen to on Rhapsody, and of course, they're right. However, I think of Rhapsody as a mix between XM Satellite Radio and Over 6 million people pay $10 a month for XM, and you have little choice in the music you get to listen to, other than their vast channel selection. I think of Rhapsody as a service similar to XM, but with an ability to browse similar artists, get recommendations from editors, while creating precise playlists of the artists, songs and albums you want to hear.

What would be especially interesting for Real to do with Rhapsody, would be for them to institute some of the features found in what are typically referred to as Web 2.0 sites and applications. It would be great for community reviews of artists, the ability for users created tags and categorizations, and possibly RSS feeds of new or recommended artists in the genres you like. It would certainly add value to the service, but perhaps there's risks that I'm having a difficult time imagining right now.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Off Topic: Gourmet Magazine - Simply knowing your audience

This post is deviating from the normal observations of technology and hotspot reviews, to a observation in simplicity, and knowing your audience well.

Among my few non-tech related hobbies, I very much enjoy cooking, most people who know me personally know this quite well. So it's not uncommon for me to receive subscriptions to common cooking magazines, even if the only one I read on a regular basis is the brilliant Cook's Illustrated.

That said, I've never been much of a fan of the more popular cooking magazines, namely, Bon Appetit and Gourmet. Most often, the recipes are needlessly complex, are too picture perfect, and appear to be designed for an uptight crowd who doesn't realize that the point of a good home cooked meal is to enjoy the little imperfections, drink too much red wine or other booze with family and close friends (and sometimes not so close friends), and that number one enjoyment to be found in food is not to develop "food porn" quality photos, but to get dirty, make some mistakes, learn from them, and continue on because you love food.

With those complaints leveled, I must admit to being impressed with the direction Gourmet Editor in Chief, Ruth Reichl (formerly of the NYTimes) has taken the magazine. She's brought Anthony Bourdain (of Kitchen Confidential fame) on board to write, I believe, a monthly column. She's also taken a stronger focus on food travel destinations within the United States, seems to be focusing on easier to find ingredients, and generally is making the magazine more accessible, while still retaining a sense of elegance.

One other observation about Gourmet, as recent subscriber to the magazine (thanks, Mom!), one of my favorite discoveries was that when you receive the magazine in mail, they send you an edition with a cover stripped of all text on the cover, save for the name of the magazine. It's a great touch, it simplifies the cover, allows for an elegant, simple cover, and piques your interest of what lay inside, and probably helps their subscription rate, however slightly.

I'm unaware of how long Gourmet has maintained this practice, but credit must be given for a thoughtful approach, and I wish more companies, certainly more magazines, would follow there lead.