I was going to write some puntastic eulogy about working at Sun for a million years but all I can think about is a pen
I lost in the Sale office in 1993. Goodbye then.
I sometimes write nonsense about things to try and sound clever
I was going to write some puntastic eulogy about working at Sun for a million years but all I can think about is a pen
I lost in the Sale office in 1993. Goodbye then.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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