Archive for the ‘ Web – General’ Category

Google and the end of SMS: by design flaw or design strategy?

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

I’ve been using Android 4.4 KitKat for a few weeks now and the only part of it I don’t particularly like is how Hangouts tries to combine SMS with what was previously Google Talk. There’s also several functional parts of the UI that really frustrate me.

The “swipe” gesture to archive a Hangout is fine… but more than once I’ve accidentally archived Hangouts trying to swipe to the list of recent hangouts. This is a hit area problem: if you don’t swipe accurately enough, you start deleting, er, “archiving” Hangouts. And if you don’t hit undo immediately, they then seem gone forever.

Hangouts on Android

But the real problem with Hangouts is the seemingly inconsistent searching of contacts between the phone app and Hangouts. Yesterday I watched my wife almost go crazy trying to send an SMS to her sister in law. When she searched for her name in the phone app, it was there no problem: but nothing came up when she searched in Hangout except for Google+ people. And tapping on any contact in the phone app simply calls them. There is no long hold interaction which seems very strange. After both of us fiddling around with the Nexus 5 we finally worked out if you tap on the contact photo and NOT the contact name, you then get more detail and the option of sending an SMS to that number.

Again, why there isn’t a long hold here really baffles me: surely that’s a very natural interaction for getting more details within an contact context?

Of course when I tried to replicate this contact issue with the same person on my Nexus, our sister in law came up no problem on my Hangouts (with phone number). But I found the identical problem with another contact:

Hangouts in Android 4.4

The same contact appears in both the phone and Hangouts app, but Hangouts doesn’t give me an option to send an SMS — only a Hangout chat.

The inconsistency here really interests me. Is this genuinely a design flaw, or are Google doing their utmost to try and push Hangout chats over traditional SMS? It would make sense for Google to be pushing Hangouts over SMS, and as an end user with a data plan I then wouldn’t have to worry about SMS costs (especially when it comes to messaging people abroad). And with the news today of Facebook buying WhatsApp, Google trying to catch up with Hangouts would obviously be strategic.

So the question still remains: is this confusing and inconsistent contact searching on Android 4.4 on purpose or is it just bad UI design? Knowing Google, I suspect it’s probably the latter.

13 Hilariously Funny and Amusing Bitstrips Cartoons You Must See

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

If your Facebook feed is anything like mine you’ve seen an influx of Bitstrips lately.

Based on my experience of using Bitstrip, here’s thirteen Bitstrips you must see (eat your heart out, Buzzfeed).


A minor user experience improvement for the Liberal Party of Australia

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

I don’t often find myself visiting the website of the Liberal Party of Australia. Politics aside however, when I did stumble across the site today, a newsletter subscription form pop-up welcomed me:


Sadly, these sorts of annoyingly desperate newsletter pop-ups are fairly ubiquitous online these days. However, can you see how to actually close the window?


If you look above the National Party leader Warren Truss and squint you can just about spot a little white “x”.

Obviously, from a user experience perspective, closing this window (that 99% of users will probably want to do) isn’t an easy task. The simple solution? Of course, make the “x” larger and more prominent.

Perhaps this would work better? Let’s put the X in the most prominent place possible… over the face of Liberal leader Tony Abbott:


Much, much better.

(To be fair, I’m up for putting big crosses over any politician’s face… but with the exception of The Nationals, no other major Australian parties nag their users like this. So Tony will have to do for now!)

Potluck: social networks as an endless game

Friday, June 28th, 2013

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of “endless games” and how they apply to content. From SCVNGR’s game dynamics playdeck:

Endless games: Games that do not have an explicit end. Most applicable to casual games that can refresh their content or games where a static (but positive) state is a reward of its own.

This same mechanic is at work within almost all social networks: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and even Quora. It’s a simple concept: every time you return to any of these social networks, there’s something new for you. Something to read, something to discuss, a funny animated GIF, a link to explore — and on and on. The fact you’re getting something new and unknown whenever you return to a social network is one reason they have become such a powerful part of digital life.

And that’s why I was quite excited about Potluck — a social network dedicated to sharing links. As a link junky this sounded like a wonderful proposition. From their homepage:

Discover new things your friends think are cool (that you wouldn’t find otherwise!).

Sounded pretty good. I signed up and even sent it to work colleagues and tweeted it out. I connected to around a dozen people on the first day. Found some nice new links. A good start. But since yesterday afternoon?

Zip. Nothing is happening. Just tumbleweeds rolling by.

What motivation do I have to return to Potluck?

Zero. There’s nothing new there.

Critically, because it’s only very new and I only have a few connections, of course there’s likely to be little there. Where are the link suggestions? Trending links? Popular links? There is literlaly no reason for me to bother ever signing in again. Am I missing some part of the site? Or is it really just meant to be like this?

Potluck has failed at creating a sense of an endless game, and for me that means it’s failed entirely as a social network concept.

It’s incredible that a product with such an impressive team behind it (Evan Williams and Biz Stone to name just two) could be launched like this. This isn’t even beta.

Potluck describes itself as The best house party you’ve ever been to. On the internet.

Alas, this seems more accurate…

Forever alone

The unsurprisingly connected world

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

On BBC News today there are some lovely visualisations of global flight paths by Michael Markieta.

This reminded me of a visualisation by Facebook by Paul Butler showing global friend networks done several years ago — both in visual appearance and similarity of the data presented.

Here are the two compared:

Flight paths versus Facebook friends

The similarities, of course, are not surprising.

Without comparing the datasets directly, it’s hard to find any definitive insights, but a few things that look interesting:

  1. Social networks with the Hawaiian islands are stronger than the flights (it’s a long flight I guess, but the beaches are good right?)
  2. Chinese mainland connections through Facebook are not as pronounced as the air traffic. But Facebook isn’t as big in China as it is in the West
  3. West Africa has stronger connections through Facebook than through flight paths (again, not surprising)
  4. Western Europe is heavily interconnected in both maps, but moving east this reduces in density… but Moscow is a large hub in both maps
  5. Australia and New Zealand prefer to keep in touch through Facebook rather than flying across the Tasman

I’d love to compare these datasets together along with similar stats from Twitter, Baidu/Weibo in China and VK in Russia/Eastern Europe.

Can anyone else see any other interesting similarities (or differences) in here?

The Webby Awards and what Government sites really need to be?

Sunday, May 12th, 2013

Earlier this year, the new UK Government portal GOV.UK won “Design of the Year” from the Design Museum. But this wasn’t just in the web or digital category — it was THE design of the year. The site was valued higher than the architecture and construction of The Shard and even the Olympic Cauldron from London 2012. An amazing precedent for digital work that rightly illustrates what a tremendous and ground-breaking project GOV.UK is and continues to be.

Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum, sums up GOV.UK nicely:

all the things that we would like to take for granted from the Government but, in a sea of red tape and jargon, usually can’t

When the 2013 Webby Awards were announced at the end of April, I made a casual assumption that GOV.UK would make the list of awards. However, it didn’t. But what I find interesting is perhaps not so much GOV.UK’s omission, but more what the actual winner of the 2013 Webby Awards for Government website was.

Hold on folks, strap your bullet-proof vest on and cock your pistol: this shit is about to GET REAL. Ladies and gentlemen, take cover as you visit MILWAUKEE POLICE NEWS.COM. (If you’ve got motion sickness pills, take them now: the parallax is like a stormy sea).


Wow. They say the Webbys are “The Oscars” of the web — and in this case Michael Bay and Vin Diesel have just won. The site is missing one thing: Bad Boys by Inner Circle playing in the background. The site is seriously like an episode of cops… but in some strange futuristic world or perhaps a different dimension.

I’ve not been to Milwaukee, but I was always under the impression it was a quite nice place. However, after visiting this site I’m concerned that Milwaukee is a cross between Gotham City in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films and a city in some Latin American narco-state. (The most wanted section is particularly indicative of this).

I’ve actually got no idea who this site is for. I can’t even see any way to contact Milwaukee Police on this site. There’s not even a single mention of 911 on the page. There is a link to how you can pay parking tickets, but it’s about 10,000 pixels down the page just above the sexy photo of a SWAT van.

So, GOV.UK clearly has a lot to learn from MILWAUKEE POLICE NEWS.COM and their Webby triumph. As a proud British resident (and almost citizen), I’ve decided to help out the nice folks at GOV.UK and redesign their homepage to make it more better and stuff.

Check it out: the new and improved GOV.UK.

Rethinking human verification: transforming the mundane and frustrating into playful and fun

Saturday, April 20th, 2013

Sometimes it seems like the more technology we use to make our lives easier the more frustrations we are subjected to. Take for instance my own personal pet hate online: the awful CAPTCHA.


Reviled by all, CAPTCHA’s have become an accepted burden online. It feels like these unpleasant snippets of mangled text have become the first line defence in a war against machines and bots — based on the theory that humans are able to decipher these riddles better than machines. For now, at least.

CAPTCHA: Rise of the machines

Many alternatives to CAPTCHA have been proposed. Some of the best defence systems against bots are actually invisible to users — for instance the honeypot technique. The less human users are bothered the better, but there is another alternative approach that works remarkably well: so well, in fact, that it’s actually quite fun doing it.

When Facebook registers unusual activity on an account — for instance logging in from a new computer or overseas — it will often prompt the user to verify their identity.

One option it gives is identifying friends in photos.


This approach well and truly turns user verification into a simple game: you get three photos of five friends you must identify (and two skips — which is useful in case it shows you the photos of some friend’s baby or dog or other randomly tagged photo).

The photos chosen are totally random and the process is quite fun. Not only does it make a serious issue like security verification a positive experience, the entire process is so great because the alternatives — such as CAPTCHAS — are so absolutely awful.

Facebook is different from say a ticket booking website in that is does have the luxury of having a huge amount of personal data to draw on. But surely with some creativity many websites could find a more creative way to filter out bots?

Let’s say, for instance, I’m trying to order some Black Sabbath tickets. Why not ask me to identify Black Sabbath from a group of images (or some music as an accessible alternative)?

Black Sabbath

Beats the hell out of a CAPTCHA — even though it might involve a bit of Justin Bieber.

When personalisation devalues content: Quora Weekly Digest

Monday, March 11th, 2013

Of all the new sites I’ve used lately, Quora is one I’ve become quite hooked on.

Once a week all users receive the “Quora Weekly Digest” — a summary of the most interesting content on the site that week. It used to be my most anticipated email of the week. But lately I’ve noticed it’s become less interesting as it appeared to contain more content from people I follow on Quora — and most of this stuff I’d already read from browsing the site during the day.

This suspicion was confirmed after Jason Kottke recently wrote about his love for the Weekly Digest:

Topics covered in this week’s newsletter include “Could a professional fighter survive an encounter with a fully grown healthy gorilla determined to kill him, without feigning death?”

This is EXACTLY the awesome stuff I used to love about the Weekly Digest. (The answer is “yes”, by the way). It’s totally out of leftfield: and that’s what makes it so interesting.

There was no such question in the Quora Weekly Digest I got the same week. It seems the more you use Quora, the more it tries to personalise the Digest. If you don’t use it much, you get a more generic Digest.

Please Quora, don’t personalise the weekly digest. Pick the best/popular/interesting/crazy stuff and just send it to everyone. It’s much cooler that way.

A little problem with following on Twitter

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

Twitter has an excellent onboarding process that ensures you’ll be seeing tweets of interest within minutes of signing up. This is all part of Twitter’s consistently great user experience; however lately I’ve stumbled upon one exception to this:

Twitter: You are unable to follow more people at this time

You are unable to follow more people at this time.

Lately I hit the 2,000 mark of users followed on Twitter. This is indicative of what I was talking about above: Twitter is fantastic at encouraging you to follow more and more. The “Who to follow” pane is like an intellectual donut shop… juicy avatars of all sorts of users it believes you’ll be interested in.

Mmm, Twitter donuts

And you just want to keep on eating. It’s a classic feedback loop: you click follow and you’ll get a new avatar appearing to tempt you again into following. It’s like a social network slot machine.

But therein lies the issue: depending on your level of followers, sooner or later you run out of coins.

Now Twitter has an interesting support article on following limits that explains how it works. It’s a tricky balance for them: trying to maintain their service, avoiding spam and abuse… there’s a lot of issues at play here.

For me the issue isn’t that they stop you following more than x followers, it’s more the lack of response the interface has to this limit.

It’s a pretty standard and simple convention in UI design that if a user can’t perform an action, either don’t show it or show that it is unavailable. Even though my Twitter follower list is now capped, Twitter still urges me to follow more. Yet if I click “follow” I’m thrown up the same old message: “You are unable to follow more people at this time. Learn more here.” Not great.

But here’s where this issue takes a turn for the worse. There are two ways to follow new people if you’ve hit your limit:

Unfollow users

Unfollowing users on a social network is a slippery slope. It’s hard to maintain a thick skin with this sometimes; anyone who’s used a service like Qwitter knows that it’s hard not to take these things personally when someone unfollows you. Was it something I said? Am I tweeting too much? Am I not as funny as I think I am? Am I tweeting many amusing cat videos? Or has that person hit their limit and is just “pruning” users?

And it’s often tit for tat: if someone unfollows you, it’s only human to want to unfollow them. And ironically, that means both users are followers down now, which sadly affects the number of users you’re allowed to follow: Twitter mentions ratios between following and followers, but doesn’t publish them.

Gain more followers

Telling users to get more followers is potentially negative as well.

“You’re not popular enough.”


Flash backs to highschool anyone?

A more elegent solution

This could work a whole lot better, with a few simple changes.

One option would be to remove the whole “who to follow” pane altogether. But surely there’s a better solution than that.


Let’s say you’re ten users away from your Twitter limit. Why not communicate that to the user?

You're only ten users away...

Positive actions

And if you’ve hit your limit? Why not encourage the user to try and gain more followers?

Join the conversation?

This way the drive to continually interact and engage with Twitter remains while removing frustrating and potentially negative experience.

Your year in review on social networks: Twitter vs Facebook

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

On December 12th I noticed a link on Facebook: “2012: Your year in review”. Boldy it proclaimed:

“A look at your 20 biggest moments from the year including life events, highlighted posts and your popular stories.”

2012 in review

I love these ‘end of year reviews’. They’re one of the best things about the close of the year — looking back over the year that was and reliving highlights (and often lowlights). Some of the more interesting ones from 2012 were Google’s Zeitgeist 2012, 2012 Year on Twitter and The Atlantic’s 2012: The Year in Photos.

Naturally I was really interested to see a personalised year in review from Facebook. Given that I use Facebook a lot — and therefore Facebook knows a lot about me, and has a lot of my data — my expectations were quite high.

Unfortunately, my Facebook year in review was woefully underwhelming. (If you’re friends me on Facebook, you can see my Year in review — or see your own — which is hopefully more interesting than mine).

So why was mine so underwhelming?