loss of control – it happens

Reading Time: < 1 minute

Blogspot displays scientology ads in my blog. Great.

Ovi store lets me browse for applications, and when I find an interesting AND free one, it says this is no longer available. Why let me browse it then?

Loss of control. You’re not in charge. That’s a major factor and a turnoff in computing. When systems leave you out, without the means to correct the particular issue. I don’t think I can decide which ads to display along my writings. I’m not that particularly pissed off by the scientology ad, but it just surprised me in a way: “Oh, and *this* can happen!” It kind of woke me up to reality.

Because in the worst case, someone would think I’m praising scientology in my blog. The ad was quite big and visible, not text but graphics.

If anyone knows if there’s any control over one’s blog in Blogspot, drop me a note. Would be appreciated!

Stuck in old Metaphors – better times coming

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Do you know what (search, connect, wait, wait, open, login, wait, select, accept, check) means? Why, it’s uploading your best photos from the phone to a public place like a web album. Sounds pretty complicated though, and that’s exactly what is currently is. We often don’t do things because the steps are taking too much time. It’s like having to brush your teeth when you were kid. It was inevitable, yet you lingered until it was forced.

In the example you first search for the USB cable (Bluetooth isn’t reliable enough, anyway). Then you connect your phone to a Windows-based host, which takes ages. Then you open the management software for your phone, which enables picture uploading. You login into a site, where you will be publishing the pics. You wait for the site to respond. Then you select the pictures for uploading, and accept the transport. You finally check that everthing went as was expected.

We’re stuck in old metaphors. Old ways of thinking what bits represent and how they should be transformed into new meanings and places. But there’s constant change, and I think we’re headed for much smoother waters. Since cellphones start to be quite mature in hardware, there’s a craving for better user interfaces. We might soon forget the times that functions were deeply buried in layers and layers of menus. Context-sensitive menus and buttons will probably be increasing. There’s always the balancing between limiting what a user can do, and trying not to make the user interface too confusing by including all possibilities.

A central tenet to user interfaces has been the direct manipulation of objects. Instead of burying things into hierarchical systems, the designer presents instantly graspable objects which users can alter, move, resize, etc. In phones, wouldn’t it be nice to just tap on the pictures, and send them instantly into a shared place?

I’m slightly inclined to Apple attitude in these. Nokias kind of have the old world scent in exactly that things are hierarchical and a bit out of date. It’s still very interesting to see how the competition turns out. I don’t know about Apple’s production strategy or platform strengths, but Nokia has a history of producing a lot of things on its own, so I think it has a key strength in here. And both parties are learning from each other just like in the operating system wars.

In the web world (see, we gotta still separate mobile from the web, for practical reasons), the channels are split. If you’re on Facebook, it takes some effort to get content into some other system. But there are pipes which let people share their most interesting experiences into other social networking platforms and data drains.

The familiar phenomena is this: You hear about a new medium; let’s say Twitter. You take a couple of moments to think about whether to join. You Google some arguments
about the service, ask friends, look up the traditional media, and then make up your mind. Eventually, you’ll probably at least take a test ride. Registration is usually quite light.

The first steps in the new medium are crucial. If the experience is good, and you find it useful or fun, you’ll probably stick to it. For example, I started using Twitter, but then there was a pause. It was barren. There was no relevant content, no friends. Later on I found this great client called TweetDeck. The tool instantly boosted my twitter usage. I started to see a lot more of it, and could stay in power by adjusting the windows, and having a constant and quick access to
the control buttons.

The interesting question is, whether these technologies will come together, or stay as islands of their own. The typical setting is that I sit down at my computer. It takes me some 5-10 minutes to get all necessary apps and services running and logged into. At the end of the day, logout takes some time and I have to think about what apps I can leave running, which I should turn down. I’d like to transport this desktop into my phone, as-is. Currently that’s not possible. I have to make decisions and a lot of manual work to carry some of the services in different gadgets.

The IT department faces a lot of decisions, too. They have to be updated about what’s available on the markets. Often there’s a slight overflow of information. And the new systems planning is not the only chore running. Basically keeping old systems up and running and secure is taking its share. So for all of these reasons the decisions are usually very conservative: Let’s stick to the old and known. And keep things simple. That’s a good decision, in a way. But it also limits the company(=employees) from gaining true benefits from new technology.

Tech gone bad – travel card kludgism

Reading Time: 4 minutes

This article contains two main branches. First I’m going to talk about
the misjudgments somebody made in the design of a Finnish traveling card,
and in the latter part I’m ranting about tech in general, but mobiles
and new services in specific.

Sometimes it’s pretty obvious when something has been designed badly, or
in a user-hostile way. I was renewing the trips in my electronic travel
card. To my surprise, there were a couple of things:
– I could only select 22 or 44 trips
– the trips would have to be consumed in 59 days (by 9.8.2009)

The back limit to my trips was that the card would receive some kind
of update (a product code update). So what? It’s not my problem!
It’s good to make people informed of what is happening, but that
a product code update should affect the way I use my trips – that’s
unacceptable. We should be riding the technology, not be pushed by
it.

It’s funny that I am affected so much as a consumer by the apparently
kludgy choices somebody made during the design of the card. Did the team
think about people’s true needs? Like flexibility and the freedom to travel
when appropiate. I don’t think the bits are going sour – they last practically
forever. So why the 2 month time limit? I’ve no idea at all.

Why I’m writing about this is not that it would shade the sun and
shatter Earth. It’s because this is pure abuse of technology. Tech is not
meant to limit people’s freedom of movement and their choices. It’s
supposed to do the total opposite: liberate!

We could have the liberty to do trips and pay by the kilometer. Or, if there’s
a campaign, take advantage of it. Whatever. But not like this: you’re
given 2 options, and forced to use your trips in due time – or else you
lose direct money.

It may be that the inflexibility of the electronic card is actually inherited
from the underlying system. When I go to the travel agency selling these things,
I can’t but notice how akward all the filing folders and papers seem. They have
tons of tables about the cost of specific trips. Based on location, length,
age group, and who knows what other factors, the whole pictures become
unnecessarily complex.

I think specific travel cards will perish some day. Because simply there’s
no idea at all to make people carry tens of different cards. Ok, currently
they are a splendid way of branding something, and perhaps we really
don’t yet have means to make universal electronic payments, thus we’re
stuck with these cards. Cellphones are one candidate to take the place of
cards. They do have some problems though: one is the possible lack of
power. If the battery is dead, and you’re supposed to beam up some kredito
to the bus, how are you going to do it?

What happens when traveling is difficult? Of course in a bigger picture the
traveling has gotten a lot easier during the centuries, but we’re still
quite far from the optimal. Because every country, region and even bigger
cities have a proprietary, customized traveling card system! Why couldn’t
we parametrize traveling universally, and start doing it using a single
system? Just like TCP/IP protocols are the backbone of the whole
communications revolution, I think traveling could also have much simplified
and unified structure.

The design would have to encompass a lot of questions. First a survey of
all the major travel systems; what exists? Thinking through the user’s
point of view (what is it we are after: easy, affordable, sure travels)
and of course the implementor’s side.

Many travel agency offices seem to be a collection of quite a pile of paper, strange
obsolete stamping machines, and other oddities. In a world, very old-fashioned.
I can’t imagine any reason why this kind of paper, scissors, and ink combination
would beat information technology. What I mean by that is that putting the
information into chips, and effectively provisioning the bits in what ever places
necessary would be an improvement over the current system.

Just recently I waited 15 minutes at such an office. 11 people were buying tickets
before me. What was my need? To renew 22 trips into my electronic card. So I’d
need about couple of kilobytes of data on the card. For that I really did wait
one quarter of an hour. There was nothing special in my service request that would have
required an officer. It was completely routine case. Some people had left from the
queue, not persistent enough to wait. That was lost business opportunnity to the
travel company.

But let me put everything in perspective. This is a small manifesto of my
future society, what comes to the technical side (the dark social side
and bombing manifestos are left for further writings ;).

First of all, tech will evolve in “obvious” and non-obvious ways. The obvious
is increase of network speed, decline in latency, increase in memory capacity,
processor speed; then there are industrial design issues, which make computers
and gadgets look damn hot.

Non-obvious change aka the interesting stuff

But one of the most important factor is usability and sense. There’s still
so much plain dumb technology;
literally tables of data are poured on the users lap, and he feels flooded,
frustrated and angry. Apple is doing a good job in leading into the
right direction; they have time and patience to do the details.

Learning and changing

When you
invent something, it’s only the 10% of the whole thing. You then have to
make people change their habits. To learn to think in your way. I’m ranting all day about Google Maps, how great it is
in my mobile. Still I think maybe one person has taken it into use from my
ranting. It’s because I haven’t been effective as a spokesperson!

There’s always some friction in learning. In mobile world, there are various
methods which vary by manufacturer. Nokia is putting up the Ovi portal right now.
Apple already has their very successful iStore. I’ve tried Ovi quickly – but
I loved widsets.com, because the application installation from there was a
real treat. No fuzz, always working. And the apps were free (ok, we’re in heaven
now). The searching, downloading, installation, configuration and troubleshooting
are all steps that take away users. Some turn back, some continue the journey.
But I think that these problems can be solved. It’s a matter of investigating
the best practises, and really thinking
the whole scenario from the end user’s point of view.

Amen. Be not afraid. Things settle, always 🙂