Things what I writ

I sometimes write nonsense about things to try and sound clever

We Sell Servers

You know that, of course, but how do you buy our servers? For as long as I can remember, and in line with how we structure our organization, we’ve presented our product lines on the web by the product categories by which we refer to them. This means that if you’re looking for our servers on sun.com, we think you might want to look for them by their parent category. Right now, we’d be in a great position to answer customer questions like “What CoolThreads servers have you got?”, or “Show me all your blades”, but, really, is that the kind of question you have in your head when you come to sun.com to look at servers?

Maybe you’d actually prefer to see our servers presented in terms of their attributes, so that you can begin your research by asking “What servers have you got that can run Linux?”, or maybe “I’ve got $5000 and I want a Sun server now. Show me what you’ve got”. In any case, you’d be hard pressed right now to complete a customer journey like that without going through a number of hoops. Backwards, probably.

So, at the moment, we’re looking at what’s important to our customers in terms of the way that they look for our products and how they might expect to see them grouped, or otherwise, so that a subset of products is a meaningful subset of products, that can support directed searching, categorization and a much more targeted presentation model. I mean, do you really need to know everything about why our products are so great when you’ve already come to sun.com to find the products? Is that product category landing page just telling you a bit more than you need to know, when all you really want to do is find the products? Perhaps, in actual fact, you don’t know what you’re looking for and you do need help in understanding just what Sun servers there are and how they are differentiated from the competition. Either way, we want to try and support those interactions as efficiently as possible and, from a user experience perspective, make it a pleasure to be engaging with us.

We have great people in the team conducting user evaluations and interviews and gathering as much data as we can in order to direct our designs, but, you know, you might have something to say about your experiences on sun.com and what you really want to be able to do when you’re researching our products. If you do, let me know, and we’ll feed it directly into the design process. If you don’t want to comment here, you can always email – my name is Tim Caynes and I work at sun.com, so the address isn’t difficult to fathom.

Listening Post: Future Radio Online

Second Life Emptiness

I had made a mental, not physical, note to myself to attend the online knees-up that was yesterday’s Sun employee event in Second Life. Of course, I was extraordinarily busy doing web prototype updates and determining the length of various pieces of data string yesterday, so I forgot all about it. In any case, being in the UK timezone meant that by the time Jonathan was speaking, I was already driving to a grotty venue down by the river to see a band nobody likes, and when Liz Matthews was taking to the stage I was probably lying in a pool of beer surrounded by students half my age screeching for an encore.

The fact that I missed it, however, and that various people have since recounted the experience, made me want to revisit Second Life and reconnect with the possibilities for syncing up some of our web experiences with the whole other-worldliness of planet Linden. I first signed into Second Life well over a year ago and we had a few meetings in there and talked about marketing opportunities, building experiences, what the engagement model was and all those kind of ethereal things that a new environment makes you think about. Lou was particularly visionary, of course, and was able to articulate just the kind of opportunities that Second Life could offer and how we might weave it seamlessly into our key customer journeys. Most of us, however, were just trying to pass the ‘you can now fly’ exam and wondering where you could buy those enormous body parts from.

Sun does have a rather lovely presence in Second Life these days and people like Fiona and Christy have obviously done an enormous amount to raise awareness, as the success of the events demonstrate, but there’s still that disconnect between how we’re engaging customers on the old rickety web and how we’re able to interact directly in Second Life. It was designed that way, of course, so what do I expect, but I’d like to do more than just copy-and-paste a slurl for an event. Perhaps there’s some neat Second Life Grid API in the pipeline that supports web-based collaboration via the platform or something, or maybe we’ll start pricing our products online in Linden dollars. However it manifests itself, it would hopefully be more than just jumping from one world to the other, either by a web-based slurl, or a SL-based web browser. That’s just like wearing your anorak inside out and calling it a new coat.

Anyway, to my reason for going to Second Life today, I thought I might do some of that social interaction thing and pretend to be someone worth chatting to and maybe catch the fallout of the employee event somehow. How wrong I was. I mean, I might not expect to see it thronging with hordes of flying groupies around the Sun Pavillion at lunchtime in the UK (2am Pacific), but there’s always a Java developer from Belgium or something, looking at the free Sun jackets, surely. Not today. No green dots. Just me.

I hung around for a while, taking screenshots of myself, like I was on holiday, and decided to take a sneak look at Club Java, just to make sure there’s were no swingers hanging around that had missed the last virtual bus home. There wasn’t, so really, there was nothing else to do…

Listening Post: The Mars Volta: The Bedlam In Goliath

Bring Me A Taxonomy

Praise be for the sight of our erstwhile über data architect, pontificating on the nature of content engineering strategies and all things modelled. It’s been far too long since Kristen has regailed us with those neatly crafted unified product model things that she does, but I guess that’s what happens when they make you a director. You have to do all that director stuff instead. Thank goodness I’m at least 3 steps removed from that particular career move then, right?

In the web experience design team, we have a number of ongoing projects that really are all about how the data we’re using is architected (which is not a real word, surely), in order that they have any chance of success. In reference to Kristen’s latest entry, this is mostly to do with how we define the data sets for products, such that we are able to build efficient, manageable content management capabilities while also being able to easily organize the information across multiple venues and in multiple formats. But it’s also about understanding the key attributes of our products that really differentiate them in our customer’s minds, and how we design for interactions, based on those attributes as selection criteria, whether they be as filters for directed searching, or determining navigation hierarchies. I think I may have almost made some sense there. What I’m really saying is that if we don’t have people with large brains figuring out our data architecture, then the value of the systems we manage and render that data with approaches zero. There’s probably an appropriate reference to polishing waste product I could use here to labour the point, but I wouldn’t do that.

As well as enlightening those of us with smaller brains, of the things Kristen gets to do in her blog entries, which I’m kind of jealous of, is add all those code fragments and scary-looking class diagrams. I can do screenshots in the dark and post those, right-aligned, but I just don’t have any groovy code stuff to share, and I know people like that stuff. So I’ve taken to stealing some of hers and rolling my own.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<stolen-object>
  <label>Data Model Browser - CEDM 1.0</label>
  <explanation>
   <p>The CEDM Data Model Browser describes concepts and attributes that are 
      core to the <b>Tim Code Envy Data Model</b>. This 
      version [CEDM 1.0] covers Tim's pathetic code envy as it is represented 
      in <b>blogs.sun.com, timcaynes.com, and most other places</b>. Things 
      that describe tantrums, impotence, or just plain stupidity are not 
      included in CEDM, but they should be</p>
  </explanation>

  <concept id="envy">
    <label>Envy</label>
    <explanation>Actual thing to be envious about.  The core frustration 
                 to the model owner (e.g. "You've got loads of code about data
                 and stuff and I don't have any, boo hoo.").
    </explanation>

    <implementation-guideline>
      Use an idiot as a stand-in for the envy itself
    </implementation-guideline>
    <association ref="wetfish-id"/>
    <association ref="name">
      <constraint>Strictly syndicated through a wet fish</constraint>

    </association>
    <association ref="description"/>
    <association ref="image"/>
    <association>
  </concept>

</stolen-object>

There. I feel better already.

Listening Post: Supergrass: Sitting Up Straight

Content Channels

First of all, full marks for getting high page rankings and integrating all sorts of lovely flash advertising and web 2.0 features like the google user pop-in, user comments and article sharing, plus filters, subscriptions, related stories and gazillions of regular ads, without really compromising the page download, but, really, where’s the content gone? This is the regular, non-member, non-CEO, non-attaché, non-content view of a regular forbes.com page and if there was ever a web 2.0 version of the blink tag, this is pretty much it. There’s so much going on here that it takes a while to even fathom where the content is. I mean, obviously its in that slot under the header and next to the left navigation, but with so much distraction (ads doing what they do best), it takes a while to orient yourself. Its a bit like trying to focus on the horizon when a boat is pitching uncontrollably and you’re just about to take a second look at the lobster thermidor you had for lunch. And there’s no handrail. And no boat.

Its probably unfair to pick out Forbes, as there’s any number of article-based sites out there which adopt this style of page format. I say, ‘adopt this style’, but what that really means is ‘crams as many ads into the available space’, even if they are those circular ads which are published by, and point to, yourself. I guess I still hanker after solid design frameworks and excellence in user experience, but as the channels on the internet converge with the channels on TV and other media, it’s predictable that the demands for return on investment drive the content model. Perhaps I should be tipping my hat to the page designers who manage to actually squeeze some content into these pages, notwithstanding the requirements for ad placement, cross-marketing, subscription targets and everything else. That is a real user experience challenge, albeit not one I’d like to have to take on.

As we begin to talk about ‘content channels’ for sun.com and how we surface rolling content on our existing navigation and page class pages, we are in the (probably) enviable position, from a user experience perspective, of owning not only the whole page, but also the content channel itself, so we can build it pretty much anyway we see fit, within our established web design framework. Maybe it would actually be easier to know that for given page types, we are only allowed to utilize a space 200×200 in the 3rd column using specific technology and hosted on a 3rd-party server that only allows you to add clear text and a 60X60 graphic – but easier isn’t necessarily better.

Mind you, we haven’t designed for the sun.com content channels yet, so its difficult to pontificate about the relative merits of total ownership of design against paid-for content services, although, naturally, that won’t stop me.

Listening Post: Holy F**k: Lovely Allen

Ad Server Finger Drumming

It is quite possibly a consequence of my patience becoming inversely proportional to my age, but recently, waiting for ad servers to respond in order to complete loading a page is really ticking me off. I’m not bothered about about ads which take a while to load while I’m actually reading the page I requested, but what really gets my fingers drumming on the desk and puts my laser mouse in imminent danger of being crashed unceremoniously against the woodwork with accompanying cries of “c’mon! C’MON-AH!”, is ad server code that halts a page load mid-stream until its finished its business. I’m sure the page owners have bought into the most efficient geo-located edge-based web service out there, so why is it increasingly the case that while pages get faster, ad servers seem to get slower? Perhaps it’s a deliberate interaction feature, I mean, nothing grabs your attention more than a broken page, but from a customer experience point of view, I don’t think that’s a journey I would normally care to continue with.

I’m aware that we deploy our own ad server across sun.com, and that’s not always bulletproof, but, as you might imagine, I look at as many sun.com pages as any other commercial/consumer sites, and I never have noticeable ad server lag on sun.com. I’m not exactly co-located with the sun.com servers either, being on the free internet in the UK, so I don’t get any special treatment. Maybe because we own the deployment of our own ad server, we’re in a much better position to monitor performance and make adjustments – I can’t pretend to understand the technology behind it (well, ok, I can) – whereas, as is the case for any web service you buy into, if you get your ads delivered by a 3rd party, you can’t do much about the external reference issues. That’s been true of any page you care to publish since html 1.0 – once you include external references as core components of your page, you’re really asking for trouble, notwithstanding any service level agreements you might have in place (and they’re always great, right?).

Even as I write this, I’m looking at Facebook and waiting for a hair loss ad to appear in the left-hand navigation. It doesn’t actually break the rendering, but it does annoy me all the same – the delays, not because it’s targeted me for hair loss products. Although, that is pretty annoying

Listening Post: Spiral Vertigo: What I’d Really Like To Say

The Return of the Design Comic

They’ve never really been away, but there’s a number of places I’ve been recently where they’d tell the story just perfectly, so I recently dug out all the old slides I had, and got any stuff I was missing from Martin’s site, and I’m looking at running some scenarios past people, with the comic treatment.

There’s no simpler way to get the message across when you’re trying to highlight a particular use case and they’re a great, self-documenting way to describe a unique customer journey. More often than not, because they’re particularly good for delivering bad news, I pull together all the slides with the really scary close-ups of disgruntled customers’ faces, and add suitably appalled call-outs, to make a really heavy-handed point, but, hey, that’s ok, as long as you put a joke in, right? Those ones are generally reserved for ‘problem’ scenarios, where we know there’s something wrong, but clickthrough and omniture data doesn’t always describe the user experience. Its a kind of ‘once more with feeling’ approach to describing a problem. To prove something’s not working isn’t always enough, you have to be able to show what it means to a customer as a result, and the way I’m doing that is with the faces of customers looking, well, pissed off annoyed.

They’re not just for bad news though. Most of the characterizations are at the delighted end of the scale, verging on the ecstatic in some cases (that would be for something like the super download speed on the improved docs.sun.com or something), all the way through to Dr Spock puzzlement (not finding products on a product gateway). Some of my favorite artifacts are the customer scenes, such as the ‘overhead typing’ view, or the ‘yes, I’m still in the office at this time’ view. My very favorite, however, is the ‘cubicle farm’, which, even after working from home for 4 years, makes me twitch a little and look over my shoulder when I see it.

If I come up with anything remotely entertaining, which isn’t entertaining because I’m highlighting some disasterous product portfolio deployment or something, then I’ll share it here. Until then, I’ll just post the usual meaningless kind of nonsense.

Listening Post: Add N to (X): Barry 7’s Contraption

You Know, Like CNET

Before you even get to the point where you ask ‘what is your content?’, there’s an apparent understanding that you need to work out how it surfaces all over your site. Since the very early days of sun.com, one of the biggest goals, as far as maintaining a healthy visitor profile goes, is just how to make things sticky. I’m not talking sticky as in the stuff that makes you go eeuw, but sticky like the invisible elastic brain rubber that compels you, against the gravity of your free will, to revisit those places online that have already visited. It’s the same reason you go back to Fry’s every so often, just to see if there’s any new technology stuff to dribble over, or why you ping last.fm or iTunes to keep up with released, related, and recommended. It might also be the reason you visit Gap every Friday lunchtime – you’re just checking it out to see what’s new.

But how do you know what’s new and where do you expect to find that out? When you’re looking at something the scale of sun.com and trying to determine customer behaviours for a given page type, it’s not alway a simple task to predict. You might be the kind of visitor who would casually visit the sun.com home page and, not unreasonably, expect to see anything newsworthy enough, that you might be compelled to actually invest time in, to be present right there. You might be more specific than that. You might be the CTO for an SMB or some other suitable market research defined acronym pairing, in which case, you’d probably know that we’ve got a place just for you, where you’d expect announcements, deep-dives and news to appear, relevant to your needs. You might even have a large propeller sticking out of your head and be interested only in what’s going on with Sun Virtual Desktop Infrastructure and how that relates to your development requirements for your linear accellerator or something. Either way, when we’ve got news for you, we want you to find it. And we want you to come back again. And again. And again.

So that’s why we’re currently investigating new approaches to surfacing the bestest, most currentest, content around, that’s relevant to you, in a way that’s going to make you want to come back often, but not take all day to consume when you’re engaging with us. One of the ideas we’re floating around (or select another flagpole/envelope/conceptualization buzzword bingo term of your own there) is content channels. You know, like CNET. We could funnel these content streams into various containers on product pages, gateways, category pages, etc., so that what’s most relevant to you is right there, where you want it, on-demand, so to speak. In terms of web design, this a quite a nice proposal, as we can have the content live elsewhere and suck it through a virtual ‘news pipe’, which spits it into, for instance, the servers container. Which would probably be quite sticky. Of course, someone, somewhere, needs to be owning, managing, publishing and maintaining the channels, but on the assumption that that would be possible, then a modular approach to deploying those channels where it makes most sense would be, um, neat.

Listening Post: The Who: I Can See For Miles

Web Prototyping with NetBeans

For the best Ajax-ready environment to support rapid development, its got to be NetBeans 6.0. I think. I mean, I’ve not actually used it yet, but I do have a need to build some prototypes for dynamic web frameworks that include little widgets and JSF bits and pieces (probably) to enable me to look cleverer than I actually am, which, unsurprisingly, isn’t difficult.

I’ve not settled on a development environment since I started trying to use them in earnest a good few years ago. Most of the things I’ve used to try and support rapid prototyping are not really IDEs at all, but applications that just do one thing, meaning I end up using 3 or 4 of them and try to stitch everything together rather unsuccessfully at the end. If I was being really pedantic, which I am, I’d say the best development environment I’ve ever used for web prototyping, where the web part is actually a web part and not just a photoshop part, was XEmacs. I know some of you reading this are going dewy-eyed at the very mention of it, before you get back to work on Dreamweaver.

The problem with most applications, IDEs, or whatever toolkits I’ve come across, is that they invariably do at least one thing that constantly irritates me. Not the kind of thing that irritates me that you can turn off in an options screen, but the kind of thing that irritates me because its intrinsically the way the application does what it does, whether its the cumbersome previewing methods, or the sublime adherence to a doctype declaration I didn’t specify, or even just having windows with fat, ugly borders. Actually, that last one is the kind of irritant that would bug me the most.

So, I’m hoping that NetBeans will be something I can call my friend. If not, its back to XEmacs, a gin and tonic, and a long night of ctrl-c, ctrl-v and ctrl-bladder, until I’ve hacked together a product finder that surfaces on not just product gateway pages, but the whole of the moon.

Listening Post: The Prodigy: Poison

Project Overlap

I know you just love it when you find out your project overlaps with about 4 other projects doing kind of the same thing, but from a different place. That just happens in large-scale organizations, however we arrange ourselves and whatever processes we try and stick to. So when you gracefully collide with the business teams, the publishing and engineering teams and at least 1 other team you didn’t actually know existed until this morning, in a conference call that gathers all the stakeholders, it nice to get a good outcome.

We’re currently taking a deep dive, or whatever you call it, into the design framework we need in order to support the content architecture around product lines. In other words, if you happen to be the director in charge of, say, server marketing here at Sun, what is it that sun.com needs to do for you? I mean, we know a bunch of stuff about what people are actually doing when they hit those landing pages (we’re calling then category pages, for the record), but what is it that we’re wanting them to do, and from where did they enter, and to where are they going? Its all very well me just drawing a fancier looking media panel and assuming that we know what’s going to play there, or even if it should be a media panel at all. I can use terms like ‘customer channel’ as if I know what they mean, but in the end, as designers, we’re trying to understand the customer journey, in order for us to determine navigation paths and build a design framework that works for everyone.

Which is where collisions are helpful. As long as you have super efficient people around you to pull those overlapping projects together (designers don’t really do that kind of stuff very well), you might just strike it lucky and start the conversation at the point where you’re all saying “well, that’s kind of what we’re trying to do”. And that’s what happened this week, which made everything fit together way more neatly than it did last week. I finally get to the point where I know what’s required, we’re engaged with the stakeholders, and we’re all talking the same language.

Typically, I’m on vacation all next week, so I’ll forgotten it all by the time I get back (only joking).

Listening Post: The Wombats: Moving To New York

The IA Has Landed

Its been a good long while since Martin left us to ramp up the customer experience over at Cisco, and then our über information architect, Jennifer, jumped ship for a measly directorship. Since then, we’ve tried to maintain a steady course through the icebergs of web experience design and other shipping analogies that have come our way. Sometimes you can pull in the slack, and share the extra workload between those of you that are left, but its not always been super effective, and, from an IA perspective, we’ve become slightly rudderless. I mean, we can launch the rescue boats pretty effectively when we’re responding to web distress calls, and we’ve always been pretty good navigators, but there’s not really been anyone up in the IA bridge for a while, playing a strong captain’s role.

So, hurrah! then, for the arrival, this week, of our new Lead Information Architect (and for a paragraph devoid of nautical wordery nonsense). Holly started on Monday and will, I’m sure, do a great job in her new role. I’m already putting her name next to a number of projects that desperately require the attention of someone who actually knows what they are talking about, and I’m looking forward to seeing some much-needed IA focus back on our projects. Welcome Holly. I’ve got this web feedback task taxonomy that needs a bit of work if you’re available. Oh, and the product categories could use some direction. And the gateways of course. And what about that home page stuff? etc…

Listening Post: Robyn Hitchcock: Surgery

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