Things what I writ

I sometimes write nonsense about things to try and sound clever

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Finding Servers

Hot, well, warm on the heels of our storage finder, we have recently deployed the new server finder, which replaced a previous incantation of finding functionality which was held together by hello world string and was somewhat creaking at the edges. The new server finder is based on the architecture we developed for the storage finder – they are, in fact, 2 renditions of the same finding platform – and so leverages the features that make it so worth the investment of effort.

As with the storage deployment, the key to making the server finder successful was, well, a number of things, but the main thrust of our efforts was defining the data architecture that make the relationships between product groups, products and product attributes a meaningful one. This can only happen with some Herculean efforts being undertaken by our publishing teams in conjunction with the product marketing teams, who really understand what is important and relevant about the products they market. Really, the finder itself is just a layer of abstraction on top of the data set underneath, and in theory (as we are at pains to try and progress), can be applied to any well-structured data set. What matters, is whether the data that a customer, user, or casual visitor is presented with, and the methods they can use to interrogate that data, enables them to reach an appropriate destination. In other words, they might know where they want to go, they might have a vague idea, or they may have no idea at all, but if we’ve done our job as well as we should be doing it, the directed searches and filters that the finding platform utilizes should provide a the equivalent of a product sat-nav, but avoid the 18-wheelers that get grounded on hump-back bridges in the middle of Hertfordshire on the way to the new Tesco Express.

Probably an analogy too far there, but it is by way of illustrating that the key to the finding platform is the data that it manipulates. I mean, we did a number of detailed usability trails, with various rapid and high-fidelity prototypes, struggled over the tiniest nuances of labels and gradients, fought compromise on page region refreshes and a followed number of other noteworthy user experience best practices, but in the end, if we built our application infrastructure on top of a taxonomy akin to a river bed full of shopping trolleys, we’d only be providing half a solution, which, in fact, is no solution at all.

We’ve still got a number of things to work on that didn’t make it into the first release, such as enabling product comparisons across products and, more difficult, across product in different product families, but take a look for yourself and let us know what you think. Comments are more than welcome, especially ones that are nice.

Awevangelizing

When you’ve got something you really want to say, but really want to say well, what is your best method for getting that message across, so that it plants a wow seed in the minds of your audience? You know, the corporate presentation equivalent of freshly baked bread and an ergonomically sourced spiral staircase centerpiece when you have house viewings? Recently, the web experience team here at Sun have had a couple of great opportunities to spread our message about the web experience lifecycle, our role in how we enable partners and stakeholders to maximize their potential on the web and, well, more importantly, how great we are. These opportunities were manifest as review meetings with executive management (there’s a few of those going on), and, maybe more exciting, the chance to spread the web experience message to a larger group of design specialists.

Once you’ve established that in the 2 days you have to create this meisterwerk you won’t be a) compiling a National Geographic style video documentary including over-the-shoulder footage of senior designers bevelling a fish and marble-backed talking heads reminiscing wistfully about Network Computing launches, or b) be building ‘presoworld’ in the Sun Microsystems Second Life hub where your SVP will have to negotiate the training course just to learn how to fly to your portal where they’ll have to find a place next some anatomically altered engineer masquerading as Wolverine in an OpenSolaris free virtual tshirt who clacks their fingers over an imaginary keyboard throughout the entire session, or c) in person, then what you’re most likely left with is filling that vital 25-minute timeslot with a presentation. I mean, not even a web-based presentation, but one that you put together with slides, templates, stickmen, graphs and everything.

Of course, traditional slideware is anathema to most self-respecting web experience design professionals, but, since I have a rather low self-respect threshold, and 1.5 days left, I though it might actually be a nice way to get our message across. More importantly, the presentation was required to be ‘taken away’, meaning it would, by design, need to be easily located in a laptop file system and spewed onto a white screen or even just viewed on-screen on the back seat of a taxi to Redwood City. With these core requirements in mind, it was painfully clear that however I created it, it would end up as a PDF, and so it was just a question of what applications and tools in the slideware creation cycle I picked from to build the thing out, knowing that, since I’m as manically possessive as any designer, I need to have TOTAL CONTROL OVER ALL THE BITS. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what I used (InDesign) or what other tools helped me out (Photoshop, Illustrator, FastStone Capture), because having settled on the nuts and bolts, it was all about the bread and butter. Thankfully, it wasn’t a solo effort to actually create the content – the web experience design team is crammed with wonderfully skilled and articulate individuals who can deliver that stuff – but there was a certain slackening of the reigns in terms of consolidation of content, arrangement and style, which is obviously the bit which appealed most. And the style I chose was awevangelization.

Awevangelization – Which I would patent, if I had any clue as to how that happens – is “the method of communicating one’s value in such as way as to avoid any ambiguity in that message through the tactical deployment of stuff which looks so awesome that it must be true”. As designers, we’re constantly, subconsciously striving to deliver projects that awevangelize, in that the frameworks that support the message render it unequivocal. There is, of course, a sliding awevangelical scale, depending on the strategic approach for the campaign or message. Viral is not awevangelism in its purest form, but it applies to execution, in so much that if you are required to understand a fake to be real, then it must be an awesome fake. Similarly, you might choose to derive design impact from actually sliding off the scale altogether so that you, apparently, have no impact at all. But other designers know that really, you’ve just done a modulo on the awezangelization scale and actually, you’re super-anti-awesome, which is, of course, awesome.

In the end, for the presentation. I just made the background black and did that mirror reflection thing with screenshots, but everybody is so busy these days that they don’t even have time to do that, so it seemed to rate fairly high on the awevangelical audience feedback metrics. Which made me happy for a while. Until I remembered I’d forgotten to submit a project brief for sidebar ordering to encapsulate requirements for content attachments to document types for sun.com in our publishing system. That wasn’t quite so, well, awesome.

Listening Post: Aphex Twin: Flaphead

Articulating Prudence

You know that nagging feeling you have in the back of your mind that you feel you haven’t quite explained to those you care for that the internet is, in fact, a omnipresent blood-sucking privacy leech that never forgets? I mean, you might have those conversations where you say ‘and never, never give anyone your own email address’, or ‘if you don’t know who its from, don’t open it’, or even ‘is that you?‘, but sometimes its difficult to explain, with real-life examples, why posting a picture of yourself with your head down the toilet is, like, OMG, a really stupid thing to do if you ever want to grow up into a real person with a job and everything. I know the temptation to tell the world just how drunk you can get is overwhelming, but really, that, as an example, is exactly the kind of thing that gets stuck on the fly-paper of social networking, forever.

So I’m glad to be able to point people in the direction of an article (on the internet, naturally), that more eloquently describes the perils of posting, but, crucially, sets it in the context of how the major social networking sites actually manage your data, and, based on the terms and conditions you implicitly sign-up for, the data is no longer actually yours. Of course, the article is describing exactly how Sun is enabling some of the most humungous networks to massively scale and deliver blistering performance, notably, the mother of all cringe archives, but while we’re delivering the technology that drives the networks that you, I, and half the world seem to engage with on a daily basis, we’re also acutely aware of our responsibilities. There. I said it. And if I sound like a pompous Dad for saying it, then I don’t mind, because this stuff really is important.

Listening Post: Tubeway Army: Down in the Park

use it, or not

Hang on, is this still active? Oh dear.

It occurred to me while reading Paul Boag‘s 10 things a web designer would never tell you, that there are a number of things I’ve never told you. They were mainly the things in his list, but accompanied by a cultural caveat that stated I’m English, specifically, from dead-pan capital of the east, Norwich, so anything I might write down here that might apparently be totally, like, lame, I’ve actually written post-modern ironically, which means that any statement of fact that I make that you consider simply ridiculous, is, in fact, a joke. Its just that I deliver it straight. Which is difficult enough when I deliver it face-to-face, but when it’s rendered in a <div>, then it often goes horribly wrong.

Suffice to say that on reading Paul’s list, I’m particularly struck by number 3. Not because I necessarily subscribe to the argument that user testing is an expensive conspiracy prolapsed by some clandestine web design coven in order to prolong delivery (you see how straight I’m delivering that), but because I really dislike useit.com. Of course its probably the most well-respected usability site of all and has mucho gravitas amongst the online design community (he even knows where my eyes are looking. right now!), but, oh, I just can’t look at it. Its not so much that there is just so much valuable, rich, meaningful content there on that home page that it makes me hyperventilate at the thought of actually having to read some of it, or even the fact that when I do get to read it, I’m mildly troubled by it being more statement of fact than informed conjecture. Its worse than that. I don’t like yellow. And that high frequency colour spectrum opposite polarity yellow-blue split-screen thing makes my eyes go all stereogrammatical and gives me a headache. Oh, and there’s no pictures. That alone makes my healing brush finger twitch. Am I wrong?

That is, of course, just something that affects me. I think. Thankfully, the team that delivers the sun.com experience is a very broad church and amongst us walk many much more professional and qualified experts who actually understand, subscribe to, and put into practice the very things that he who shall be called Jakob Nielsen imparts. That’s one of the reasons why sun.com conistently ranks so highly in independent usability evaluations (from folks such as SiteIQ) – because we engage early with stakeholders, customers and our extended communites to get that critical knowledge that keeps us informed. We also continue those relationships with ongoing studies, surveys and evaluations, so that we don’t get complacent. Its easy to evaluate usability on a specific project while you’re in the design and build phase, and then just forget all about it once you move to deploy and maintain. You’ve already tested it right? You don’t need to test it again after it goes live, surely? We’re guilty of that on sun.com, and its one of the things we’re trying to focus on right now. So if we ask you for feedback, or drop you the occasional survey when you’re visiting sun.com, we’d be delighted if you’d spare the time to let us know what we’re doing right or wrong. It doesn’t take long, and hopefully it will help us to help you.

That last bit wasn’t a joke, by the way.

Listening Post: Ladyhawke: My Delirium

ihavea Player

Following the rampant success of the BBC iPlayerITV has done what it does best, and nicked it. Ok, so the implementation is different, as are the system requirements, oh, and the reach, ah, and the general niceness of it, but it’s is pretty much the same thingy that allows you to catch up (their call to action) on the fabulous ITV franchise programmes you may have inadvertently decided you didn’t want to watch in the first place.

What I like most of all about this little gem of interactivity, however, is the name. Inoffensive, to the point, and generally following the trend of at least 3 years ago to start everything with an ‘i’. Except this little ‘i’ isn’t the mactard freeform freeload bangwagonesque all-seeing ‘i’, it’s the BBCi. The BBCi brand, label, bucket, whatever, was around for many years as a catch-all bitriquadquin-media expression of anything vaguely digital. Stands to reason that when they finally delivered their TV-ondemandonlineovertheweb player that it would fall under that broad BBCi category of products, even though they don’t really call it that anymore. So, why not just stick the ‘i’ at the front? Viola!. iPlayer. Nothing to do with fruit. So when ITV finally scraped enough funds together to bake a TV-ondemand cake, it’s no wonder they want to leverage a bit of the success that the BBC iPlayer enjoys. So let’s maybe start it with an ‘i’. But wait. We’re ITV. We start with an ‘i’ anyway. Hang on, itvPlayer! Bingo!

Not to suggest that it’s a little like cybersquatting a domain typo, but the similarities are striking. Take a little look at the branding around ITV Player and the BBC iPlayer and you get the picture. Even down to the little pointy triangle video play device in the logo. ‘But everybody uses that’. Oh, ok. Of course, the presentation and user experience for each product are the usual worlds apart, but when it comes down to it, the products are pretty much the same online. What used to be the crucial advantage of what used to be called not the itvPlayer but something else entirely was that you could watch ITV programmes near-live, which I spouted some eulogy about a while back. That was clearly a huge competitive edge, like a virtual sabatier to the heart of copyrighted 7-day backlog of the BBC. Not any more though. I mean, you can’t just watch anything live. And they make you work hard to find it. In fact, all I can watch right now is a live repeat of the UK pre-buget report statement on BBC parliament, but, they do now do live TV online. You still need to pony up for your TV license to actually legally watch it, but I tell you, to get the Scottish Parliament from the 26 November on a programme originally broadcast on 21st December live on my desktop via a repeat on the BBC Parliament channel on 31st December is some thrill indeed. Better than fireworks.

Happy new year.

Listening Post: M83: Graveyard Girl

Finding Storage

Sounds like it should be a film with Tom Hanks and an emotionally challenged Tupperware box. It is, in fact, the long-awaited solution to one of our common web problems. Whether you call it filtered searching, directed searching, product finding, trans-navigational learning aid cognitive process map hierarchical cross-sell or something, it’s about trying to find the right product for your business. And we’ve just launched it on sun.com.

The new storage finder is built from the ground up with the intention of enabling customers to find the right products for them, based on their unique requirements. We’ve tried this before, you may have noticed, with mixed results. One of the problems we’ve previously encountered is trying to architect a finding solution that’s based on the interaction model alone, rather than really understanding what is important to our customers and how those key criteria drive the user experience. To avoid repeating those mistakes, for the new storage finder, we took a significant step backwards, to understand the product taxonomy and how it maps to business needs and customer expectations. When reviewing the product data, and testing with business groups and customers, it was clear that what seems like an important attribute of a product or product family is not necessarily what matters to the people who are actually wanting to buy it. Seems obvious, but until you get real people to give you real opinions, then you’re just guessing.

After investing such much effort in evaluating the product data and determining what really turns folk on about storage (it does happen), we were in a much better position to look at the interaction model and the representation of the data on sun.com. I mean, we already knew that driving customers down a one-way street with road signs that only the product marketing team can read is a pretty hopeless exercise, but there was still a lot of decision making and testing to be done around the entry points to the customer journey, the complexity of the options (parabolic vs. optional), and the level of detail required to enable a decision to be made. Oh, and whether the Ajax thing would work.

I won’t bore you with the iterations of prototypes, usability testing, data refining, back-end systems, publishing frameworks and specifications that need to collide gracefully in order to get a project like this out of the door, but, suffice to say, a number of dedicated, hard-working folks from across Sun managed to pull this one out of the bag just in time for Christmas, so enjoy. There’s still a shopping day left, by the way…

We’ve a list of enhancements and future work that we’re already planning, but let us know what you think so that we can involve you in the ongoing development of our finding capability on sun.com

Listening Post: Dananananaykroyd: Pink Sabbath

Faces to Voices

Its been a long time since I’ve been out to Colorado to get together with the rest of the web experience design team, so its a great pleasure to be attending our all-hands event this week. There’s a number of faces I’ve been able to put to voices and tweets and IMs, including Holly and Matt, who have fairly recently joined the team. We’re employing some damn fine looking people these days, I have to tell you. We’re almost as good-looking as our pages.

There’s also a couple of other folks here right now that I managed to meet up with for the first time, and the week’s not over yet, so there’s still time to find and surprise more unwitting co-workers with how old I look in real life. In fact, as I was, like, totally lame when Teresa was in the UK a few months ago and didn’t drive 3 hours to meet up with her then, she pretty much dragged me out of the hotel yesterday when, coincidentally, I was trying to finish a design specification for Unified Web Feedback.

There are so many Sun people working from home these days that we often need a really good reason to actually drag ourselves out, knuckles scraping on the floor, to meet up with the people we probably would have sat next to in the office every day a few years ago. Which is why investing the time, effort (and dollars) in getting a team like ours together is so valuable. We’re spending these days reviewing the past year, looking at priorities for the next, working on our process and documentation and generally spreading the web love around. By the end of the week we’ll probably all be twitching and avoiding eye contact, but until that happens, there’s nothing quite like a good old get-together. With lots of Macbooks, naturally.

Listening Post: Pulp: Babies

Got Server Content?

You do? Where shall we put that then? No, I mean where shall we put it so people can actually see it?

There’s a ton of great stuff out there about Sun products, and it changes all the time. The trouble is, on sun.com, we sometimes don’t keep up with all the new and updated content out there. This is because we’ve often not really had a good place to surface it on our traditional product landing pages. Think servers, or storage, or software. Those product areas have their own discrete content areas on sun.com, where you might expect a reasonable refresh rate. In particular, the Overview pages in those product areas – the pages you hit at /servers, /storage, /software – should probably be the stickiest pages we can build, with constantly refreshed content. It’s always nice to see new content when you go back to a page. It gives the impression it might actually be current.

Up until very recently, the servers landing page on sun.com wasn’t really a landing page at all. You just landed quite unceremoniously at a server finder, where you were kind of expected to fend for yourself. Fine, of course, if you know what you’re looking for, or if you have some sense of the kind of product attributes that make up the ideal server for your particular business needs. Not so great if you don’t even know what a server is, or does. Or maybe you just want to know how Sun servers can help you, before you actually have to start choosing one. All the kind of stuff we loosely describe as content ‘which tells the product story’. You know, delivering key messages, addressing market sectors, providing system solutions, all that kind of stuff.

A few weeks ago, we put together a servers overview page, so that we could do that story telling, provide sensible paths into product areas, uplevel featured products, show off some great customer success stories, and, yes, tell you what our servers actually are. It’s a delicate balance on these pages between getting the story out there and providing a quick route to the products, but I think we managed it pretty well. I say ‘we’, but, of course, it was the good folks in the product marketing teams that pulled all the content together (kudos Carlos & Lisa), and our publishing team that managed the tricky icky problem of integrating the new content with the existing server finder (heroics from Jing). I just did the bit where I say ‘you’d be better of with a PC00 component there’.

While we were working that project, there was another altogether more dynamic project going on in the design room next door (there’s not a really a design room next door to me, but you know what I mean). A few months ago, the systems group here at Sun, that looks after the server product line, had an idea that they wanted to explore. It was really about addressing the problem I mentioned at the start – there’s great, current content out there, that has marketing dollars behind it, and a plan to develop it, but not a really great place to showcase it. Based on the kind of presentation we use for the product launch events on sun.com, they wanted to see what we could do to support their idea of ‘content channels’. A little bit launch, a little bit back story, a little bit promotion, a whole lot more interesting than a big top banner.

The result is what you now see on the top of the new servers overview page. A rather nice mix of videos, podcasts, product tours, white papers and other supercool server stories (those product tours are very nice. I took the PSU out of a Sun Fire X4140 just now). So now, when you come back to the servers section on sun.com, you can expect regular updates, announcements, product walkthroughs and all that jazz – all hand-picked by your server channel content owners. If you can’t hear it, that’s the sound of a gauntlet dropping to the floor of Menlo Park, by the way…

If its not immediately apparent, this is a product category landing page without right-hand navigation. Well, I’m excited.

Listening Post: Psychedelic Furs: All Of This and Nothing

itv.com

Watching TV on a computer is a bit like playing World of Warcraft on a phone – you probably can, but it’s a bit rubbish. There are some rather nice players out there right now, like the BBC iPlayer, but the main reservation I have is that I’m as likely to watch programmes, that have already been aired, via my computer in my office as I am to watch them via my hard disk recorder in the living room. Which is not very likely. Once a programme has gone, it’s pretty much gone, and I never seem to to find the time to go back and ‘watch again’. Unless it’s a Robyn Hitchcock documentary on BBC 4. I can always find time for one of those.

I’ve often listened to my friend John Murray commentating on a mid-week champions league match on Radio 5 via Real Player from the BBC site, as I’m supposed to be on a conference call about widgets or something, and that works pretty well. They sometimes even sync up graphic scoreboards to give you something to look at while you’re listening, but really, its still not like watching football on TV. I could probably find last Saturday’s Match of the Day and watch it again on Wednesday, but it’s not like watching it at the time and it’s not live football anyway.

So all hail ITV. Even though they have a reasonable offering in the way of recently aired items to pick and choose from and watch again, what really makes itv.com worth going to is the fact that I can watch ITV channels there. Live. Well, a few seconds delay, but it’s a live stream of the 4 ITV channels, not a stored, cut, archived and expired (usually) version of the ITV output. This is hugely significant, as it means that should, for instance, a UEFA Cup final happen to clash with a conference call about prototypes, then I am now able to have the full moving pictures of the game, as it happens, next to an InDesign document of web design components, while pretending to know what I’m talking about on the phone. I wouldn’t actually do that, of course, I’d be 100% committed to the conference call, but let’s just say that’s a plausible scenario. I did try an experiment with the itv.com pictures streaming and John commentating via bbc.co.uk, to see how they might sync up. It took a few minutes to work out who was lagging, and to my surprise, the Radio 5 audio stream is about 2 and a half minutes behind the ITV1 video stream, but even that was better than listening to Clive Tyldesley (that doesn’t translate well, but I expect Dave will understand).

Of course, the whole thing is pretty much ‘undefined’ as an experience if you’re using Firefox, as the player requires Silverlight, but frankly, there are times when I’ll just use Internet Explorer and be done with it.

Listening Post: The Roots: The Return to Innocence Lost

Sharing Your Opinion

I just had a call with Ben, Mr Usability, regarding some work we need to collaborate on as part of our web feedback program. We’ve been looking into the user experience across our feedback systems on various venues and trying to simplify and standardize a number of the interactions. This effort has been really quite specific in focus for sun.com, based on the nature of how we gather feedback there through our contact forms, but we really do a whole lot more than just ask you to point out broken links and typos.

You may have noticed that we’ve rolled out the ‘floating math’ feedback widget across sun.com. In fact, the widget, in various formats, is rolled out across a wide range of Sun web venues and is gathering mightily useful data from those sites. Well, aside from the comments about how we suck particular parts of primates anatomy, of course, but, in general, specific, constructive and informative.

The whole thing is powered by lovely people at OpinionLab, and I was lucky enough to have Ben walk me through the administration interface to give me a better understanding of the capabilities of their templated comment card system and the deployment of widgets and embedded components. There was a time when we would take a look at a system like this, kind of like it, and then build our own. On Solaris. Using vi. Thankfully, we’re much more ready these days to let folks who really know what they’re doing provide these services (yes, I know we have to pay), and work out how they interconnect and communicate with our own systems. In the case of OpinionLab, is seems this is an exercise that they are more than happy to work with us on to get right, which is good, because now they’ll have to work with me to try and get it right, which is a user experience I can’t possibly comment on.

Listening Post: Bloc Party: Atonement

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