Thursday, November 25, 2010

Newspaper Usability

Daily newspapers are struggling, perhaps even dying. There are a lot of reasons for that, related to the internet and various broadcast media alternatives. I have one more to offer, however: usability. The plain fact is that newspapers are physically inconvenient to "use". The big problems:

  1. Form factor. The "broadsheet" form is just incredibly inconvenient for today's on-the-go lifestyle. My gold standard for readably form factor is the thin, staple-bound magazine, where all page-manipulation actions can be managed one-handed. But even the "tabloid" form would be an improvement.
  2. Article continuation. Having to flip to another page within the section--and even worse, sometimes in another, physically separate section--is horrible. Of course it horribleness is severely compounded by the Form Factor problem.

The sad part? These are self-inflicted wounds. The newspapers don't have to be this way, they do it by design. In my book, that's bad karma.. Making your product deliberately worse, because it seems to serve your business interests and you think you can lead your customers around with a ring-in-their-nose. Sooner or later, it will blow up in your face.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Vanguard Scared Me

I got this email from Vanguard, in reference to Beth's IRA. Keeping in mind that we have executed ZERO TRANSACTIONS in months, look at what this email says:
  1. Confirming your recent transactions.
  2. Updated account profile
I was more confident than not that there would be an innocuous explanation, but I couldn't come up with a candidate hypothesis, so the thought of cybertheft did cross my mind. Then I logged into Vanguard's site, and my fears were quickly put to rest. They had simply converted the regular shares to "Admiral" shares. That is slightly beneficial. but essentially it is "inside baseball" within Vanguard. In the meantime, a good little scare.

In hindsight, I think they might have sent us a paper statement a month ago saying they would do this, but I certainly didn't recall it in the moment.

Gift Android Apps to Others

As more kids get Android phones, we need a way to let kids get apps without having full-blown access to download payware.

Facebook Beacon Functionality

A couple of years ago, Facebook got hammered for their "Beacon" program, where your purchases on certain partner websites were automatically (as in opt out) posted to your Facebook page. Really dumb.

Ironically, I think this could be useful, and very easily implemented. In fact, all that is needed is to make "Share with Facebook" an option for smartphone shopping apps, such as Google Shopper. You use the smartphone app to scan the Barcode, and it looks up the product. This is just what Google Shopper already does. All that is needed is one more button in tue UI, labeled "Share with Facebook".

The funny thing is, 1-2 click sharing is a common feature of so many smartphone apps. A bit mystifying why it is missing here (or at least in Shopper--I haven't surveyed all the other apps).

Calories In, Calories Out

A professor ate almost nothing but Twinkies and the like for several months, and wound up losing weight and improving his cholesterol. The key was that he ate a very controlled amount of Twinkies, a lower calorie intake than he had been at previously. This is totally un-surprising to me--calories in, calories out. At least in terms of weight, the total number of calories matters FAR more than the source. This is really basic science and, to me, the fact that so many people are so willing to believe in fad diets[1] is yet another example of the insidious effects of scientific illiteracy.

I tend to think the same way about exercise...for all but the most serious competitive athletes, I think the more calories burned, the better. Little to be gained by worrying about what zone you are in--other than trying to get in the highest zone you can manage, for whatever amount of time you have budgeted to exercise. Though I am somewhat more open to being wrong about this one, because there does seem to be research to support the idea of Fartlek/Interval training's benefits (fitness, more than weight loss, but that's the important thing anyway).

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[1] Actually, you could just about extend this comment to "any diet at all", since the evidence is that yo-yo dieting is worse than never losing the weight in the first place.

"ASK" used on NPR as a noun

3+ years ago I logged Jargonwatch entry on the use of "ask" as a noun. The other day I heard it used this way on NPR.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ticketmaster Must Die

Ticket fees, what a rip-off. Information technology is supposed to radically reduce transaction costs. $10 of transaction costs (ticketing fee, service charge, convenience fee, blah, blah) on a $28 ticket is insanely inefficient. I would love to see Google or Amazon attack this business. There is so much fat, as an efficient, high-volume player, they could easily take 80-90% of the cost out, cut off Ticketmaster's oxygen supply, and still make money.

Or, if Microsoft wanted to do something interesting and seize some high ground in consumer mindshare...

Friday, November 12, 2010

Online Habits Obfuscator

The linked article talks about counter-measures against web sites tracking and accumulating your personal information. One idea I had that I haven't seen mentioned is an "obfuscator", to execute fake searches, to compromise the value of your real data. A little wasteful of bandwidth, but seems like a good way to fight back.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Gartner Analyst on "Laser Interactions" of Context Awareness

I heard a Gartner analyst speaking on "context aware marketing" the other day .He described the following scenario. The store knows who you are and where you are, when you walk in with your cell phone. When you pause briefly before continuing past the display of a kind of cereal you usually buy, the in-store camera notices, and immediately (within <1 second) sends you a coupon.

I see several problems with this:
  1. All privacy issues aside, it will get intolerably annoying to constantly get pinged with coupons.
  2. Is it even a good decision to "incent" a regular buyer with a discount, deus ex machina? If you usually buy the cereal, you will probably keep buying it. Maybe you didn't but it this time because you remembered you already had enough at home?
  3. How long does it take before consumers figure out what is happening, and deliberately trigger the coupon-reward scenario (i.e., pause, fondle, replace and slowly walk on from each item they want to buy)?
I remain skeptical.

Full-Text Search for English Lit

When I was in my late teens / early twenties (20+ years ago) I thought sometimes about how computer technology would transform various activities in the future. This included dreaming of having searchable books for English compositions and term papers. The other day, my daughter, a 10th grader, came to me saying "Dad, could I find Lord of the Flies online? I really need to be able to do CTRL-F to find quotes I am searching for".


I leaned back and said "Daughter, let me tell you a story". After I "regaled" her with the observation above, I helped her find a free, online version. She was elated. I only wish I had the chance to experience that as a student.

Smartphone As Remote

Been anticipating this for a while--definitely a lot of room for improvement.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

First Use of E-Boarding Pass

I opted to have my boarding pass emailed to my phone. First chance I have had to use that option. It worked well enough, one less thing to remember.

Fwd: Airplane Creativity and Productivity

It's been a while since I traveled on business, with my laptop. I don't miss the travel. But one little thing I had forgotten--being up in the air, isolated and disconnected from the internet, but with laptop--it does lead to productivity and some creative thinking. There is time to work through the email backlog, and actually read  each email carefully, and provided a considered answer. And in working through the pile, if I have a new thought, I can go in, fish a previous email out of the outbox, and amend it.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Minimum One Physical Button for Apps

I think smartphones should have, at a minimum, one physical button that can be accessed by apps. I want to make that physical button easily configurable. This is how I think it should work:

  1. A very simple Android setting (and widget) to link the hard button to the app of your choice.
  2. For each app, the ability to select one or more default actions to be invoked by the hard button. (These only occur when in step #1, you have chosen to attach the hard button to that app.)

The cell phone is like a really big Swiss Army. It bristles with utility, but that can cause a bit of lag when trying to whip out the right function at the right time. So what I am after hear is 1-click ease of invoking the right function at the right time. Some use cases:

  • Starting the camera, and putting it in your chosen mode
  • Starting myTracks and beginning to record
  • Invoking Navigation, to the pre-defined default destination
  • Mute button
  • Starting the stopwatch
  • Texting

Here is a bonus idea for implementing this--if the physical button is invoked with a long-press, it bypasses the security screen, for that application only.

UPDATE: 10/07/16 This last thing is what double-pressing the power button does on some Android phones.