Friday, August 26, 2011

On User Experience and Engagement

You have a website that sells stuff. You want people to buy more stuff. How do you make that happen?

I've seen a few ideas on this, things like:

Better User Experience
Easier Transactions
Compelling Pricing
Good recommendations

Two companies have solved this problem pretty well: Amazon and their somewhat recent acquisition, Zappos.

What is their answer: Customer Focus.

And in my opinion that wraps up a general principle. Your customer has to trust you or have an emotional connection with you. If they don't they will jump ship at the first opportunity. They have no brand loyalty, because they don't trust in the brand, and that's only if you have a strong brand to start with.

I have a general principle: I'll buy from a more trusted source at up to a 15% higher price.

A key word in there is "more". If it came off the back of a lorry, I think I'll pass regardless.

This is where a company like Zappos has hit the jackpot. I trust Zappos so much, I'll pay upwards of 50% more than somewhere else. I'm a bit shy when I'm working in a domain I'm not an expert in, and I find dealing with retail staff a bit trying, so I'd rather just order it from a website that can tell me five times as much as a retail person can. The conventional downside? Returns, and the ability to try something on.

Enter Zappos. Free returns. 100% Free? Not exactly. I'm guessing the reason I pay a bit of a premium for their products is because of this. But you know what, I'm glad for it. I don't have time to get to a brick and mortar store often, and normally, they only have a few dozen items that I'm interested in. I don't want to deal with retail staff who know a fraction of what I'd like to know, and I'd like to have a chance to see what other people think about a product.

Some of the bullets above are captured in the concept of trust, but some aren't. Low prices are compelling, but convenience and trust is far more compelling. Variety is also very compelling, but finding things I want is also compelling, so recommendations are very important, and also, very good search functionality.

In my opinion, Search Functionality is something Amazon and Zappos have yet to fully master. They do a far better job than others, but ultimately, I still struggle to find what I'm looking for sometimes.

Why is that? One reason I've noticed is that there are often terms of art in clothing that I'm not familiar with. I can't pick from a search facet that uses words I don't understand. There is no link to explain what they mean most times, so I have no way to find out, short of Googling each term, and that starts to chip away at the convenience factor pretty quickly. Another reason is the choice of facets. I'm guessing they've done their research and they show the best overall facets. I know I'm not a typical user, but I am a user that spends a lot of money online, and I rarely get the facets I want. Price bands are rarely where I would draw the lines, and feature facets are often not the features I care about. I imagine I'd have a better shot at completing my impulse buy if I could find what my impulse desired more easily!!

Windows 8 - iPad Killer, PC Killer, or just another fad

Ars Technica has an interesting article about the potential market and purview of Windows 8:

I can't help but feel this article is rather missing the point of a tablet, and also the limitations of technology at present.

Use Case: I want to edit a complex Excel document for a presentation.
Requirements: Highly portable device, long battery life, fully functional keyboard, pointing device, sophisticated user interface, rapid software response rate

Can a tablet meet this use case. No. And here's why:

Slow CPU (comparatively)
Limited Storage
No pointing Device
No Keyboard

Let's look at the last two, as it's reasonable to challenge those. No pointing device, and no keyboard. You can have a keyboard and pointing device connected via bluetooth. But why would you want to? Even Apple's super slim keyboard design isn't all that compact, and a mouse isn't very compact either, being rather fat. Now you need a bag to carry these accessories and this solution is looking considerably inferior to a light portable laptop.

The best solution to this use case is a device like the MacBook Air. Why?

Portable: check
Long Battery: check (relative to other laptops at least)
Pointing device: check
Full Keyboard: check
Sophisticated UI: check
Rapid software Response: check

Economically, if you're doing this, you probably don't have an entry level iPad. MacBook Air starts at $1000, and iPads top out at $850? The Air has dramatically more power, storage, screen real estate. Better keyboard, trackpad, and isn't all that much heavier.
The cost difference just isn't that big given the functional difference, and if you're a business user with this requirement, I'm guessing even a $500 difference is bordering on meaningless.

If this is really the functionality you want. Buy a laptop, not a tablet.

Add on the other use cases that this kind of user has, and the tablet isn't really a contender at all. How often would a tablet form factor be better than a laptop for this user. Hardly ever. This user doesn't want a tablet that's also a laptop, they want a laptop that's occasionally a tablet. They have these if that's what you really want, they're laptops with touch screens.

One device simply cannot rule them all. That's life. There's a reason there are 60 kinds of Spaghetti sauce at the grocery store. Different people like different things. The really sad thing to me, is that there are 60, not 20, which would satisfy the market, and leave room for different kinds of items beyond spaghetti sauce that would also appeal to a customer.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Mac OS X to Windows

I am traveling at the moment, so my SO wanted to use my older laptop to check email etc upstairs as she normally just uses my iPad.

She's been running OS X for some years and Lion since it came out.

As a demonstration of how far the gap is starting to widen (in neither a necessarily good way or a bad way), she couldn't figure out how to scroll a window. I had to instruct her how to use a scroll bar over again.

As the gap between OS X widens, those that love will possibly start to triumph. Imagine there are ten people in an office. Five are die hard Mac lovers and the other five could care less. They normally use windows, but have no reall opinion one way or the others. Let's face it, there aren't too many folks who LOVE windows the way there are with OS X. Those five are going to campaign for OS X day and night until the boss relents just to shut them up. Now the other five are swept along with the tide, and wether or not they turn into OS X fans, they are now using OS X.

The question for me is at what point does OS X hit critical mass, or am I just a wind bag full of hot air?

I'll say this much, we are having a big developer knees up this week and most of the technical tutorials are handing out instructions like: if you have a windows laptop, you will need to install a Linux VM to participate, OS X users are fine.


The company hasn't officially supported OS X for very long and already, almost every major developer in the group is using OS X to the exclusion of Windows. In some cases because the tools just don't exist for windows!!

I'm somewhat in the same boat, though not quite to that extent, my daily work is significantly easier on OS X, though possible on windows, those using windows seem to struggle with the tools, spending more time fixing things and rebooting than seems sensible.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

External Hardrives

I am once again in the market for an external hard drive. I am a bit of a content whore, and I'm addicted to iTunes. Most of our TV viewing is done through either Netflix streaming or iTunes, and my music collection is slowly being migrated to purchased music on iTunes if it wasn't bought there in the first place

My primary drive is 1TB and I have an external content drive that clocks in around 2TB. Neither is 100% full, and I've been okay with a 3TB backup drive operating through Time Machine.

I purchased a Seagate unit about six months back, and it seemed to be working Okay until I had a system failure, whereupon it quit on me. I was able to get data off it, though only by using some pretty low level access. I decided to replace it with a pair of Western
Digital drives, and put them in a RAID mirror. Well, it was a nice idea, and whilst OS X does have a software Raid feature, it can't be used with external drives, which does makes sense, though for me in this case, annoying nonetheless.

I put the one as a time machine backup, and used the other to reorganize my content. The time machine drive started being a bit flaky, and has now died altogether.

As per usual, I go shopping for another one on Amazon, and I always look at reviews. Sometimes the negative reviews can be very helpful in discerning products that do have serious legitimate issues. For external hard drives though, they are mostly garbage.

Guess what folks, it's an external hard drive. Hard disks at the best of times have a pretty high DOA rate. The only reason the one in your computer has a tendency to last longer is that manufacturers typically put a computer through a "burn-in" cycle. They stress the system for continuous long periods to weed out components that are likely to fail.

Your small cheap external drive has not been put through this kind of testing. Not only that, it's external, in a small case, with little protection over a flaky interface like USB instead of a nice stable internal SATA interface.

if you put ten years of work on an external drive with no additional backup, there is a pretty good chance you'll lose the lot, and then whining that it was the fault of the hard drive product is pretty naïve.

It does seem like there are some devices that do have a burn in period, but typically they are considerably more expensive. It looks like Apples's time capsule and I speculate the G-Drive products fall into that category. The problem is rather obvious, they are considerably more expensive than their counterparts.

At this point, I think I'm going to try and use two drives, but in rotation. Use one for a month, then switch over, then after another month, switch to the other. At least, the oldest data version will never be more than 30 days adrift, better than just losing the damn lot.