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April 26 2012

Design your website for a graceful fail

Websites go down. It happens. But in many cases it might be possible to deal with and explain a failure while keeping user frustration to a minimum.

Mike Brittain (@mikebrittain), director of engineering at Etsy, addressed the resilient user experience in our recent interview. Among his insights from the full interview (below):

  • Designing an experience that can adapt to individual service failures and partial degradations requires an intermingling between software engineers, operations teams and product and design teams.
  • Previous experience designing for cable-connected devices may skew our connectivity expectations when it comes to more fragile mobile networks.

Brittain will expand on these ideas and more in his keynote address "Building Resilient User Experiences" at Velocity 2012 in June.

Our full interview follows.

What is a "resilient" user experience — and what are a few of the main practices involved in ensuring an acceptable UX during an outage?

MikeBrittain_headshot.pngMike Brittain: Resilient user experiences are adaptable to individual failure modes within the system — allowing users to continue to use the service even in a partially degraded scenario.

Large-scale websites are driven by numerous databases, APIs, and other back-end services. Without thoughtful application design, any failure in an individual service might bubble up as a generic "Server Error." This sort of response completely blocks the user from any further experience and has the potential to degrade the user's confidence in your website, software or brand.

Consider an article page on the New York Times' website. There is the primary content of the page: the body of the article itself. And then there are all sorts of ancillary content and modules, such as social sharing tools, personalization details if you're signed-in, comments, articles recommended for you, most emailed articles, advertisements, etc. If something were to go wrong while retrieving the primary content for the page — the article body — you might not be able to provide anything meaningful to the reader. But if one or more services failed for generating any of those ancillary modules, it's likely to have a much lower impact on the reader. So, a resilient design would allow for any of those individual modules to fail gracefully without blocking the reader from completing the primary action on the site — reading news.

Here's another example closer to my own heart: The primary action for visitors to Etsy is to find, review, and purchase handcrafted goods. A product page on includes all sorts of ancillary information and tools, including a mechanism for marking a product as a "favorite." If the Favorites system goes down, we wouldn't want to return an error page to the visitor. Instead, we would hide the tool altogether. Meanwhile, visitors can continue to find and purchase products during this degradation. In fact, many of them may be blissfully unaware that the feature even exists while it is unavailable.

In the DevOps culture, we see increasing intermingling of experience and knowledge between software engineers and operations teams. Engineers who understand well how their software is operated, and the interplay between various services and back-ends, often understand failure modes and can adapt. Their software and hardware architecture may take advantage of patterns like redundant services, failover services, or retry attempts after failures.

Resilient user experiences require further intermingling with product and design teams. Product design is focused almost entirely on user experience when the system is assumed to be working properly. So, we need to have product designers commingling with engineers to better understand individual failure modes and to plan for them.

Do these interface practices vary for desktops/laptops versus mobile or tablets?

Mike Brittain: These principles apply to any user interface. But as we move into using more mobile devices and networks, we need to consider the relative fragility of the network that connects our software (e.g. a smartphone app) to servers on the Internet.

Our design process may be hampered by our prior experiences in which computers and web browsers connected to the Internet by physical cables suffered relatively low network failure rates. As such, our expectations may be that the network is seldom a failure point. We're moving rapidly into a world where mobile software connects to back-end services over cellular data networks — not to mention that the handset may be moving at high speed by car or train. So, we need to design resilience into our UIs anywhere we depend on network availability for data.

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How do you set up a front-end to fail gracefully?

Mike Brittain: Front-end could mean client-side, or it could refer to the forward-most server-side script in the request flow, which talks to other back-end services to generate the HTML for a web page. Both situations are valid for resilient design.

In designing resilient UIs, you expect failures in each and every back-end service. Examples might include connection failures, connection timeouts, response timeouts, or corrupted/incomplete data in a response. A resilient UI traps these failures at a low level and provides a usable response, rather than throwing a general exception that causes the entire page to fail.

On the client side, this could mean detecting failures in Ajax responses and allowing the user experience to continue unblocked, or by retrying after a given amount of time. This could be during page render, or maybe during a user interaction. Those familiar with Gmail may recognize that during periods of network congestion or back-end failures, the small status message that reads, "sending," when you send an email sometimes changes to "still trying …" or "offline." This is preferred over a general "failed to send email" after a single attempt.

Some general patterns for resilient UI include:

  • Disable or hide features that are failing.
  • Provide fallback (default) content in place of dynamic content or feature that cannot be reached or displayed.
  • Avoid behaviors that block UI display or interaction.
  • Detect service failures and allow for retries.
  • Failover to redundant services.

Systems engineers may recognize these patterns in low-level services or protocols. But these patterns are not as familiar to front-end engineers, product developers, and designers — who plan more around success than around failure. I don't mean for that statement to be divisive, but I do think it's true of the current state of how we build software and how we build the web.

How do you make your community aware of a failure?

Mike Brittain: In the case of small failures, the idea is to obscure the failure in a way that it does not block the primary use case for the site (e.g. we don't shut down product pages because the Favorites service is failing). Your community may not need much communication around this.

When things really go wrong, you want to be upfront and clear about failures. Use specific terms, rather than general. Provide context of time and estimated time to resolution whenever possible. If you have a service that fails and will be unavailable until you restore data over a period of, say, three hours, it's better to tell your visitors to check back in three hours than to have them hammering the refresh button on their browser for 20 minutes as they build up frustration.

You want to make sure this information is within reach for your users. I actually think at Etsy we have some pretty good patterns for this. We start with a status blog that is hosted outside of our primary network and should be available even if our data center is unreachable. Most service warnings or error messages on will provide a link to this blog. And anytime we have a service outage posted to this blog, a service warning is automatically posted at the top of any pages within our community forums and anywhere else that members would go looking for help on our site.

In your Velocity 2012 keynote summary, you mention "validating failure scenarios with 'game days'." What's a game day and how does it work?

Mike Brittain: The term game day" describes an exercise that tests some failure scenario in production. These drills are used to test hypotheses about how our systems will react to specific failures. They also surface any surprises about how the system reacts while we are actively observing.

We do this in production because development, testing, and staging environments are seldom 100% symmetric with production. You may have different numbers of machines, different volumes of data, or simulated versus live traffic. The downside is that these drills will impact real visitors. The upside is that you build real confidence within your team and exercise your abilities to cope with real failures.

We regularly test configuration flags across our site to ensure that we haven't unwired configuration logic for features we have been patching or improving. We also want to confirm that the user experience degrades gracefully when the flag is turned off. For example, when we disable the Favorites service on our site, we expect reads and writes to the data store to stop and we would expect various parts of the UI to hide the Favorites tools. Our game day would allow us to prove these out.

We would be surprised to find that disabling Favorites causes entire pages on the site to fail, rather than to degrade gracefully. We would be surprised if some processes continued to read from or write to the service while the config flag was disabled. And we would be further surprised to find unrelated services failing outright when the Favorites service was disabled. These are scenarios that might not be observed by simulated testing outside of production.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Associated photo on home and category pages: 404 error message something went wrong by, on Flickr


April 13 2012

Publishing News: DoJ lawsuit is great news for Amazon

Here are a few stories from the publishing space that caught my eye this week.

Amazon does a little Snoopy dance

DoJSeal.pngThe biggest story this week was the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) filing a lawsuit against Apple and publishers Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster and Penguin, accusing them of colluding over ebook prices. If you unplugged or dropped off-grid for the past several days, solid roundups and analyses can be found with Tim Carmody at Wired and Laura Hazard Owen at PaidContent, and you can read the complaint itself here (PDF).

Right off the bat, three publishers — Hachette, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster — settled, and Macmillan and Penguin stood their ground. Amazon responded to the situation almost immediately as well:

"This is a big win for Kindle owners, and we look forward to being allowed to lower prices on more Kindle books."

Book publishing analyst Michael Norris told the New York Times: "Amazon must be unbelievably happy today. Had they been puppeteering this whole play, it could not have worked out better for them."

Apple finally responded yesterday. As reported by Peter Kafka at All Things Digital, Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr said:

"The DOJ's accusation of collusion against Apple is simply not true. The launch of the iBookstore in 2010 fostered innovation and competition, breaking Amazon's monopolistic grip on the publishing industry. Since then customers have benefited from eBooks that are more interactive and engaging. Just as we've allowed developers to set prices on the App Store, publishers set prices on the iBookstore."

Much discussion and analysis has ensued in the aftermath — and I'm sure it will continue in the coming days and weeks.

Some are purporting that even if the collusion between the publishers proves to be true, Apple might walk away squeaky clean. A report at CNET noted why this may be the case:

"One reason lies in the Justice Department's 36-page complaint, which recounts how publishers met over breakfast in a London hotel and dinners at Manhattan's posh Picholine restaurant, which boasts a "Best of Award of Excellence" from Wine Spectator magazine. The key point is that Apple wasn't present."

Bryan Chaffin at the Mac Observer argued that yes, collusion most probably occurred but that it will be a mistake to undo it: "Doing so will clear the way for Amazon to dump books below price, taking ever more share (and power) in the book industry — that is the greater anticompetitive threat."

On the flipside, Mike Cane argued on his xBlog that the suit didn't go far enough and that the DoJ needs to sue Apple again. In a letter sent to all of the Department of Justice attorneys listed in the antitrust suit papers filed, he said:

"The advantage iPhone and iPad owners have in using the iBooks app is that they can browse and purchase eBooks from within that app. It's a seamless customer experience.

By contrast, all eBook apps from competing eBook stores — such as those from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and others — cannot offer an identical shopping experience. They are disallowed by Apple. Apple has demanded from each of its iBookstore competitors a 30% cut of any purchases made using Apple APIs for what is called 'in-app purchasing.'

To me, this is every bit as much restraint of trade as the collusive price-fixing that made the Department bring Apple and its co-conspirators before the court for remedy."

Individual U.S. states have thrown in as well: 16 State Attorneys have filed suit, alleging that agency pricing cost consumers $100 million.

Earlier this week before any suits were filed, at least two of the Big Six publishers refused to sign new contracts with Amazon. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out and whether or not publishers are spurred into action to do more to prevent Amazon from totally monopolizing the market, such as dropping DRM.

The future of publishing has a busy schedule.
Stay up to date with Tools of Change for Publishing events, publications, research and resources. Visit us at

This chapter brought to you by ...

Just about a year ago, Amazon introduced an ad-supported Kindle at a reduced cost in exchange for the consumer enduring ads on the home and screen saver pages. Now, Yahoo has filed patent applications that indicate a plan to bring those ads directly into ebook content. A report at the BBC explained:

"The filings suggest that users could be offered titles at a variety of prices depending on the ads' prominence. They add that the products shown could be determined by the type of book being read, or even the contents of a specific chapter, phrase or word ... It suggests users could be offered ads as hyperlinks based within the book's text, in-laid text or even 'dynamic content' such as video. Another idea suggests boxes at the bottom of a page could trail later chapters or quotes saying 'brought to you by Company A.'"

From a revenue perspective, ads in ebook content makes all kinds of sense. From a reader perspective, I just hope there's always a price point for those of us who prefer to do our reading sans corporate sponsorship.

B&N one-ups Amazon

A close friend recently told me a story highlighting an issue with his Kindle: While reading in the car on a road trip, he had to give up his Kindle and resort to the Kindle app on his iPad to keep reading when it got dark. Maybe he should have waited and bought a Nook.

B&N introduced the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight this week — the first e-ink device to employ light. Alexandra Chang described the device in a post for Wired:

"The GlowLight resembles B&N's flagship Nook Simple Touch — same 6-inch touchscreen display, same size and includes the same internal parts. The Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, however, is slightly lighter at just 6.95 ounces, compared to the Nook Simple Touch's 7.48 ounces ... The GlowLight technology consists of LED lights located at the top of the Nook's screen and an anti-glare screen protector. The light is evenly scattered across the screen and is adjustable via the menu."

The timing of the release is interesting, as rumors surfaced last week that Amazon was readying a front-lit display for its Kindle device.

Seal: US-DeptOfJustice-Seal, on Wikimedia Commons


March 13 2012

Everyone has a stake in the digital reading experience

In a recent interview with O'Reilly online managing editor Mac Slocum, Louis Rosenfeld (@louisrosenfeld), publisher at Rosenfeld Media, LLC, said there's a collective responsibility for a good user experience:

"There are three or four parties that should be sharing ownership of user experience — the author, the community of readers, the publisher, and the device makers. I think the lines are going to necessarily be blurry; I'm not sure they're ever really going to stabilize. The bigger issue is people — all four of those groups — basically acknowledging they have some ownership ... but also acknowledging that their role is going to be shifting." [Discussed at 1:13.]

Rosenfeld also said, a bit surprisingly given all the focus on digital these days, that his preferred reading "device" is still print [discussed at 3:22].

You can view the entire interview in the following video.

The future of publishing has a busy schedule.
Stay up to date with Tools of Change for Publishing events, publications, research and resources. Visit us at


December 22 2011

Commerce Weekly: EBay's TV tie-in

Not much happening this week as the tech world winds down for the end-of-year holidays, but here's one story that caught my eye.

EBay wants you to watch it with them

EBay knows that one screen isn't enough for us now. As more of us watch TV with tablet or smartphone in hand, the massive auction site and online retail aggregator doesn't want to be left out of an opportunity to make a sale. So it's created a feature for its iPad app called Watch with eBay that ties offerings in real time to whatever show you're watching. Kevin Woodward at Internet Retailer has the scoop. Watching the Packers? Once you've keyed in your zip and carrier information, you'll get a screen of green-and-gold logo wear. Viewing another Rooney Mara interview? Maybe you'll see offerings from H&M's Lisbeth Salander line.

Watch with eBay screenshot
The Watch with eBay function within eBay's iPad app shows products related to whatever television program you're viewing.

All I can say is it's about time this happened. Just to bring some perspective, the first time I wrote about this possible feature — seeing something you like on TV and clicking to buy it — I drew my example from the hottest program on TV at the time: If you like Kramer's retro sweater or Jerry's pirate shirt, just click to buy. It didn't happen then; the integration with set-top boxes never reached that deeply. But by disassociating the purchase process from the broadcast itself and running it in a parallel channel (the iPad) that we know is being used to supplement TV watching, eBay might be on to something.

The related data will be worth watching. We know anecdotally that multitasking on the iPad is more comfortable than it was with a laptop (with a lot less heat dissipated into our thighs and other parts). But as yet there appears to be little data on just how much parallel surfing is occurring. EBay's early results should provide one interesting data point.

Commerce Weekly will return on January 5, 2012.

X.commerce harnesses the technologies of eBay, PayPal and Magento to create the first end-to-end multi-channel commerce technology platform. Our vision is to enable merchants of every size, service providers and developers to thrive in a marketplace where in-store, online, mobile and social selling are all mission critical to business success. Learn more at

Got news?

News tips and suggestions are always welcome, so please send them along.


November 11 2011

Four short links: 11 November 2011

  1. Nudge Policies Are Another Name for Coercion (New Scientist) -- This points to the key problem with "nudge" style paternalism: presuming that technocrats understand what ordinary people want better than the people themselves. There is no reason to think technocrats know better, especially since Thaler and Sunstein offer no means for ordinary people to comment on, let alone correct, the technocrats' prescriptions. This leaves the technocrats with no systematic way of detecting their own errors, correcting them, or learning from them. And technocracy is bound to blunder, especially when it is not democratically accountable. Take heed, all you Gov 2.0 wouldbe-hackers. (via BoingBoing)
  2. Country Selector -- turns a dropdown into an autocomplete field where available. Very nice! (via Chris Shiflett)
  3. Ebook Users Wanted -- Pew Internet & American Life project looking at ebooks, looking for people who use ebooks and tablet readers in libraries.
  4. The Public Library, Complete Reimagined (KQED) -- the Fayetteville public library is putting in a fab lab. [L]ibraries aren’t just about books. They are about free access to information and to technology — and not just to reading books or using computers, but actually building and making things. (via BoingBoing)

October 26 2011

Mobile analytics unlock the what and the when

When applied appropriately, mobile analytics reveal both what happened and when it happened. Case in point: "Let's say you have a game," said Flurry CTO Sean Byrnes (@FlurryMobile) during a recent interview. "You want to measure not just that someone got to level 1, 2, 3, or 4, but how long does it take for them to get to those levels? Does someone get to level 3 in one week, get to level 4 in two weeks, and get to level 5 in four weeks? Maybe those levels are too difficult. Or maybe a user is just getting tired of the same mechanic and you need to give them something different as the game progresses." [Discussed at the 2:21 mark.]

This is why a baseline metric, such as general engagement, deserves more than a passing glance. The specific engagements tucked within can unlock a host of improvements.

Byrnes touched on a number of related topics during the full interview (below), including:

  • Why mobile developers are focusing on engagement: Once you engage a user, do they stick around? If it costs you $1 to acquire a user, how much return will you get — if any? Byrnes said app engagement has grown in importance as developers have shifted their thinking from apps as marketing channels to apps as businesses. [Discussed 30 second in.]
  • Tablet apps vs smartphone apps: A tablet app isn't the same as a phone app. Flurry has found that tablet applications are being used "a number of times longer" than phone applications, but tablet consumers use fewer applications overall. [Discussed at 3:28]

You can view the entire interview in the following video.

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October 07 2011

Scrolling, flipping, and clicking

In this interview, Oliver Reichenstein (@ia), CEO of iA Inc. and a speaker at TOC Frankfurt, talks about user experience — including author user experience — on digital screens and says no devices are cutting the mustard thus far. He also dishes a bit on the problems with news and says the real problem isn't getting readers to pay for online news but rather getting advertisers to pay real money for online ads.

Our interview follows.

What are some of the major user experience issues readers face with the digital screen?

oliver-reichenstein.jpgOliver Reichenstein: There are more open questions and unresolved issues than solutions in that field: Scroll or card? Is flipping pages really the best way to navigate between blocks of text? How do we give the reader a similar orientation of where in the text he is as in a physical object? What do we do with footnotes and annotations? Do we need links, or are they killing the flow? How much do we really want to connect the reading process with other people when you read classics that were conceived as intimate dialogues between writer and reader?

The shape of music, pictures, film, and all categories of artifacts is very much predefined by the means of production. If you look at the artifacts of the 70s, no matter whether you deal with German, English, Japanese or even Soviet products, no matter whether it's a pop song, a style of fashion or a magazine, in some way they now all look more or less the same. Maybe that's a hindsight bias, but it's worth thinking about.

Paul McCartney once said that he had trouble adapting to the CD because it has no A and B side. Plato's dialogues were read on scrolls, aloud (without spaces between words), and once you read Plato aloud, it makes much more sense. Ironically, Plato reads extremely well on screens, maybe because they scroll. Am I the only one who asks himself whether it is appropriate to read Melville on a tablet in Georgia or Times? Is "Moby Dick" the same text in a liquid browser window set in Arial or Courier as in a carefully set printed publication? I doubt it.

What I want to know is: What forms will emerge due to the new form of publishing? What are the new opportunities in reading that are unmatched so far? Will reading become more of a general chatting process? Will it be more fragmented? What roles will scrolling, flipping, and clicking play for the reading and writing experience?

Which platforms and devices are handling user experience well, and where do they need to go from here?

Oliver Reichenstein: I am not happy with any of the existing devices so far. Light reflecting devices like the Kindle feel surprisingly good, but they're still way too slow and typographically poor. The iPad readers are still a typographic nightmare. And backlit devices just don't seem to work for long-form reading. Also, the social potential of ereaders has not been properly explored yet — if there is such a thing, it will be big. We are just at the beginning, and I am very curious to see what comes next.

Most people consider readers in terms of the digital screen user experience ... what about authors? What are the major user experience issues authors face with digital screen technology?

I've been thinking a lot about that. Authors are concerned about two things:

  1. Being able to sell text. That is one big, tough topic. The pessimists say that we are doomed. Our attention span goes down the drain, and we all are less and less ready to pay for text because there is so much good stuff we can read for free. The optimists argue the average reader becomes more and more prolific with scanning and analyzing text, and books seem to be getting thicker and thicker. In my perspective, really good text will always find its paying audience.
  2. Making writing more pleasurable and less of a technical hassle. With iA Writer, I think we have set a new standard of how pleasurable the writing experience can be if writers — and not programmers — design a writing tool.

TOC Frankfurt 2011 — Being held on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, TOC Frankfurt will feature a full day of cutting-edge keynotes and panel discussions by key figures in the worlds of publishing and technology.

Save 100€ off the regular admission price with code TOC2011OR

What is iA Writer, and how does it address some of the larger user experience issues?

Oliver Reichenstein: iA Writer is a word processor with a minimal set of functions that is optimized for professional writing needs. It is, as one user called it "refreshingly conservative," in the sense that it allows you to write right after opening the program. That sounds obvious, but if you look more closely at most other programs, including TextEdit, it's not a given. After months and years of studying, research and sketching better writing interfaces, I think that we found a good core solution.

The main problem is that programmers design most writing programs, and usually they don't know anything about typography. Text is too small (which might be good for editing code but distracting for word processing), too tight, the leading is too wide, and the font comes in serifs and suggests that the text is finished even before you started.

While many screen designers will eventually find the right font face, type size, and leading measure that fits their needs, non designers will continue to stumble in the dark. Typography is something that feels extremely good when it's done right. It's extremely awkward if the slightest thing is off. If this sounds like bullshit, look at good designs — what do you think makes it special? The typeface? No. It's the system of how the typeface is used and arranged. In other words: It's typography.

This is why we decided to limit our first writing program (iA Writer for iPad) to one single typographic setting, just like a type writer. We added a thing called focus mode, a special typing mode with typewriter scrolling. It lets you only see a limited number of characters in black while everything else fades out. Focus mode was not conceived as a general setting but as an alert mode. It will help you once you get stuck, such as at the beginning when the screen looks so empty, and in the heat of the fight when the text wants to run in all directions. We added the reading time function instead of the random page breaks as a measure of assessing text lengths. Page breaks disturb the flow of writing, and they have close to no meaning on the screen.

How does it differ from other word processor platforms?

Oliver Reichenstein: To describe what makes iA Writer unique, it's helpful to look at what was imitated and what no one was able to imitate yet.

A couple of people tried to port functionality and the look and feel of iA Writer for iPad to OSX before we did. Here and there, some copied look and feel, the old Focus Mode, auto-markdown (originally an idea from my good old friend Bodhi Philpot), the disappearing title bar and even our marketing materials.

There are some elements of iA Writer for OSX, though, that are technically tough to copy: It sounds mad, but we invested weeks in figuring out how to make that anorexic default Mac cursor nice, bold and blue, like on iOS (a clearer cursor facilitates orientation). We hacked the NS TextView and reprogrammed bits and pieces to allow the delicate combination of the custom cursor, Focus Mode, typewriter scrolling, auto-indentation and auto-markdown, with all the little transitions this necessitates. We made the title bar disappear as soon as you start typing. Last but not least, we licensed a beautiful font for the app, called Nitti Light that was altered for its specific uses on iPad and on the Mac.

Nerds always want more features. But iA Writer is for writers, not for markdown specialists. That doesn't mean that we won't evolve. What you see right now is just the skeleton. If things go as planned, in a year iA Writer will be in a completely different place.

You've done a lot of work with the digital transformation in newspapers. What are some of the major obstacles holding newspapers back?

Oliver Reichenstein: In my experience the main problem of news is not that the reader is not willing to pay, but that the advertisers don't want to invest in good online advertising but still waste millions on print ads that no one sees. Online, those same advertisers only want to pay for clicks. Part of the silliness includes the online news marketing departments that for some reason dislike quality advertisement as an online paying method. They push more and more crappy little banners on a page and destroy the user experience, and disgruntle the readership with popup crap. It's clear as day: As long as they force us to deal with crappy little banners and popup ads, they are not going to manage that magical turnaround.

But there are interesting changes happening. From what I hear, some newspapers are doing quite well with the Kindle. A few make a couple of bucks with iPad apps, but they are the big exception to the rule. Especially in local European markets, the chance that you succeed is minimal. However, for a handful of really big English and German brands (like the Guardian or Bild), there is some money to be made in the app store.

And a follow up to that: What needs to change?

If I had the opportunity to force a publishing house to go my way (which will never happen):

  • Step 1: I'd go and take the marketing department by the throat and force them to take advertisement in their own hands instead of outsourcing it to the ad distribution mafiosi.
  • Step 2: Social Media marketing doesn't mean that you plaster your site with "tweet me," "+1 me," and "like me" buttons. Nothing documents the miscomprehension of social media better than an article with three banners that say: "2 tweets, 6 likes, 0+." There is a lot that publishing houses could do there. The social web must become an integral, functional part of how news works.
  • Step 3: Wait, I'm not going to tell you everything! I have documented my old ideas back in 2007 in a little experimental publication called "The Future of News." A lot has happened since then, but a lot is still valid.

Right now, we're secretly experimenting with our own publishing systems and news platforms, testing new ideas. Once I'm completely recovered from my political fatigue and a nice client rings our bell, I'll be happy to open up our next package.

This interview was edited and condensed.


September 13 2011

Keeping images and text in sync

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience." We'll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It's republished with permission.)

I've got some seriously mixed opinions about Biblion — the iPad app for browsing the New York Public Library's 1939 World's Fair archive. On the one hand, it's got few peers in rethinking how a document and photo collection can be packaged up in a fun-to-browse way. On the other hand, the whole design feels like one of my sketchbooks: overflowing with every kind of zany document design experiment that my caffeine-fueled mind can squirt out. Five minutes or so with this app and I find myself suffering from what might be called document disorientation — an unsettling sense that I don't quite know where I am, what I've read, and how much remains to explore. I don't, in short, find it a soothing or immersive reading experience.

But despite all that, I'm here to sing Team Biblion's praises (the shop behind this effort is named Potion). Included in their feature fest is one innovation that's particularly promising. It's a system for posting a handful of images above an article and then pushing to the forefront whichever picture matches the current reading point.

As the reader scrolls the prose column upward, the app enlarges whichever image matches the top few lines of text.

Launch state for lightbox layout image collection
The article in its "launch" state. Eight lines down, the text mentions Joe DiMaggio, who's pictured in the enlarged photo. (Click to enlarge.)

Further down in the article; a new image is on-stage
As the reader scrolls further down, new images are enlarged, one at a time. Here, the Babe Ruth photo matches what's discussed in the second paragraph. (Click to enlarge.)

Overall, the feature doesn't work as consistently as one might like — some articles offer this souped-up up treatment, some don't; some images get summoned exactly when you'd expect, others never get enlarged. But the thinking behind the feature succeeds, I think, because it targets a specific reader need (spotlighting the image that is currently important) while at the same time addressing a shortcoming of iPad page layout (limited real estate).

Beta620, the experimental playpen over at the New York Times, has been tackling a similar problem: how do you keep a single image visible even as a reader scrolls further down into a long article? They've come up with a feature I hope they promote to the big leagues. It's a dead simple layout tweak that keeps an image "above the fold" even as the reader scrolls down the page. Here's an article that puts this feature to use:

As the reader scrolls further down screen the art on the right stays in place.
As the reader scrolls further "down screen" the art on the right stays in place. (Click to enlarge.)

Maintaining a persistent visual in this manner is a hugely valuable reader service, especially for pieces like this essay on a Velázquez painting.

Lots of different kinds of digital books and web publications can benefit from this kind of customized, dynamic image spotlighting. I'm reading a book right now called "A History of the Illuminated Manuscript." A digital version of it would be perfect for keeping images onscreen, shuttling them off, and then re-summoning them as the reader progresses through the text. Save readers the hassle of having to flip back and forth between body text and referenced images and they'll learn better ... and want to buy more books with simple but useful enhancements like these.

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup #2 — Back by popular demand, in a second look at Digital Bookmaking Tools, author and book futurist Pete Meyers explores the existing options for creating digital books.

Join us on Thursday, November 10, 2011, at 10 am PT
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August 29 2011

August 24 2011

Inside Google+: The virtuous circle of data and doing right by users

Inside Google+ free webcastTim O'Reilly and Google+ VP of Product Bradley Horowitz took a deep dive into Google+ and a host of adjacent topics during a webcast yesterday. A full recording of their conversation is embedded at the end of this post — and it's well worth watching — but I thought it would be useful to extract and amplify a couple of key points that were made. Horowitz will expand on some of these ideas during his session at next month's Strata Summit.

Data lock-in and the virtuous circle

Data has supplanted source code as the key to lock-in. This shift was the focus of an interesting exchange between O'Reilly and Horowitz (it begins at the 13:37 mark).

"Clearly, developers and users are betting on Google with the integrity of their data," Horowitz said. "We're trying to do right by that opportunity." Horowitz pointed to the Data Liberation Front as an important part of Google's approach to data. "We have to allow people with the pull of a handle to up and leave and take that data."

O'Reilly noted that a "virtuous circle" forms when data runs through certain stacks — Apple devices tend to work better with Apple services, Google services operate well with other Google services, and these positive experiences keep users contained within an ecosystem. "The question of consolidation is there," O'Reilly said. "In that world of consolidated stacks, user freedom may not be about having your own software source code. It's about being able to get your data somewhere else. That's the shift we're in the middle of, with people starting to understand that lock-in really comes from your data more than your source code."

"That's the huge leap of faith that we take with the Data Liberation effort," Horowitz responded. "This is exactly contrary to services that are trying to build roach motels and ant farms. We're trying to give users choice. They can leave and come back. We want people to use this because we're offering the best service in the market at any given instant, and not because they're trapped at Google."

Strata Summit New York 2011, being held Sept. 20-21, is for executives, entrepreneurs, and decision-makers looking to harness data. Hear from the pioneers who are succeeding with data-driven strategies, and discover the data opportunities that lie ahead.

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Getting it right

The importance of building Google+ correctly popped up throughout the discussion, with Horowitz applying it to the controversy around Google+ pseudonyms (26:27 mark), the need to expand Google+ to enterprise users and other audiences (22:13 mark), and the eventual — but unannounced — release of Google+ APIs (18:34 mark). This same hyper-focus on creating thoughtful and well-constructed user experiences was also evident during Alex Howard's recent interview with Google+ team member Joseph Smarr.

Google+ and the competition

Facebook announced a number of changes to its sharing tools yesterday — some of which resemble functionality available on Google+ — so the topic naturally came up during the discussion (at the 39:55 mark).

"I think what they did was familiar and good for users," Horowitz said when asked about Facebook's changes. "That's another impact that Google+ can have on the world: raising the bar of what the expectations and standards around something like privacy should be."

Other subjects

A host of additional topics were addressed during the webcast, including:

  • The deep thinking behind the speed of Google+ (5:35)
  • The "noisy stream" problem (8:56)
  • Will aspects of Google+ be open sourced? (12:06)
  • Horowitz (aka "elatable") on his own experiences with pseudonyms (22:13)
  • "Listen to what people say and watch what they do." (29:14)
  • What Google hopes to get out of the Google+ "limited field trial" (33:35)
  • The possibility of auto-generated "implicit" Circles (51:00)

Check out the full conversation in the following video:


July 01 2011

Radar's top stories: June 27-July 1, 2011

Here's a look at the top stories published on Radar this week.

Get started with Hadoop
Focusing on the Hadoop Distributed File System (HDFS) and MapReduce, this in-depth piece offers tips for organizations that are looking to evaluate Hadoop and deploy an initial cluster.
Clojure: Lisp meets Java, with a side of Erlang
Stuart Sierra digs into Clojure: what it is, how it works, and why it's attracting Java developers.
Two lessons from Pottermore: Direct sales and no DRM
It's not surprising that J.K. Rowing is forging ahead with a well thought-out direct sales plan for Harry Potter ebooks, but it's a shock that publishers aren't doing the same things for their titles.
What CouchDB can do for HTML5, web apps and mobile
Bradley Holt talks about what CouchDB offers web developers, how the database works with HTML5, and why CouchApps could catch on.
How Netflix handles all those devices
Matt McCarthy explains how WebKit and A/B testing play important roles on Netflix's many apps. Plus: Platform lessons Netflix has learned that apply to other developers and companies.

OSCON Java 2011, being held July 25-27 in Portland, Ore., is focused on open source technologies that make up the Java ecosystem. Save 20% on registration with the code OS11RAD

April 04 2011

Ditch the jargon and back away from those tired slides

There's nothing worse than sitting through a dry presentation about a new business product or concept. And there's nothing worse for a presenter than seeing negative reactions to his or her dry presentation broadcast in realtime Twitter streams. But the good news is that presenters and audiences both are realizing there's an art to presenting, and when it's done right, even the driest topic can engage an audience.

Nancy DuarteIn a recent interview, Nancy Duarte, author of "slide:ology" and CEO of Duarte Design, talked about bad speaker habits, great presentations, and the importance of storytelling.

People approach their presentations the same way they do a research paper, and they shouldn't. Presentations should really be about story and about human-to-human connection.

There's almost this otherworldly ability for a human to connect to another human, and yet that's all left on the table. We use our slides as a barrier to protect ourselves from having to connect at a human level.

There's a lost opportunity to connect deeply to people. People hide not only behind their slides, but behind their jargon — people stay in their industries for years, and there's this other weird language that develops around their own subject matter, and that makes them unaccessible and not human. They have to break that down. People won't be able to identify if they don't.

For more on business presenting — what we're doing right, and what we're doing wrong — and how not to get banished from the presentation stage, you can view Duarte's entire interview in the following video:


March 30 2011

On a small screen, user experience is everything

gmail_mobileScreenshot.pngUntil someone comes up with a way to mind meld with mobile devices, the size limitations will largely define the overall experience. That's why a focus on interaction — not just look and feel — is an important part of any mobile project.

In a recent interview, Madhava Enros, mobile user experience lead at Mozilla and a speaker at the Web 2.0 Expo 2011 in San Francisco, discussed three mobile applications that he believes handle user experience quite well.

One that is very dear to my heart — at Mozilla we're really into the whole open web app concept using web technologies — is the Gmail web app for the iPhone. It's arguably a better mail client than the native one on the iPhone, and they're using a lot of really cool open web technologies to do it.

Another that I really like is the Kindle. I love the hardware itself, but Amazon really seems to have understood that mobile usage is about a constellation of devices. It's not just about the one phone you have. It's being able to read at home on your ereader, but then read on your Android phone when you're on the train, or pick up your iPad when you're elsewhere. That kind of consistency of getting at your stuff across a bunch of devices is a really great insight.

And there's Flipboard, where they understand how people are using some of these emerging technologies, like Twitter, as a protocol more than a service. It's the insight that people aren't using Twitter as an email replacement — though some people are — but as a way of reading a newspaper.

Where 2.0: 2011, being held April 19-21 in Santa Clara, Calif., will explore the intersection of location technologies and trends in software development, business strategies, and marketing.

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Enros also talked about the trend toward voice activation technology. While typing on mobile devices likely won't prevail in the long term — he said no mobile device does it really well and he described the spectrum as "OK to terrible" — he also doesn't think talking to devices will be the default:

You just have to watch that person on the bus who's yelling into their cell phone to know that talking to a device is not always the answer. Sometimes you need a little bit — or should have a little bit — of privacy.

For more of Enros' thoughts on mobile design and interaction, check out the full interview in the following video:


March 24 2011

UI is becoming an "embodied" model

The digital use case used to focus on a single person huddled over a keyboard, but now designers must understand how different interfaces and technologies influence a variety of user experiences. A single set of wireframes just won't cut it anymore.

In the following interview, Christian Crumlish (@mediajunkie), director of consumer experience at AOL and a speaker at the upcoming Web 2.0 Expo, discusses the unique challenges and opportunities designers now face.

What are the most important aspects of current UI research?

Christian CrumlishChristian Crumlish: The most interesting area right now is the intersection of the mobile, social, and real-time aspects with the physical, gestural, kinetic, and haptic interfaces. User interface is moving from the periphery of our senses — aside from a heavy reliance on the visual — to a much more embodied model where we will be able to use the full somatic sensory apparatus of our bodies to interact with systems and networks.

When you combine that with ubiquity, location-awareness, and a portable social graph, you're starting to meld the virtual and the physical. That should lead to all kinds of breakthroughs that are hard to picture in detail from our vantage today.

What challenges does cloud computing create for UI?

Christian Crumlish: The challenges largely go beyond the UI level and tend to be most interesting when talking about the broader user experience. Working with the cloud raises challenges around syncing, caching, and continuity across multiple modes and entry points. More and more, designers in this space need to look at the holistic experience and then explore how best to express it in various contexts, with different mediating devices.

Web 2.0 Expo San Francisco 2011, being held March 28-31, will examine key pieces of the digital economy and the ways you can use important ideas for your own success.

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Your Web 2.0 Expo session has an unusual title: "Start Using UX as a Weapon." How can a
"weaponized" user experience be put to work?

Christian Crumlish: UX can be used as a weapon in several ways:

  • Differentiating a product from its commodified, ho-hum competitors.
  • Allow the design/development team to maintain focus on the experiences of real people using the product.
  • Incorporating the problem-solving, ideation, visualizing, communication, and innovation techniques of the design tradition.
  • Integrating disparate aspects of a complex experience.

What sites, apps or platforms do you find to have the most impressive or effective interfaces?

Christian Crumlish: I think the wider realm of UX writ large offers much more potential for breakthrough experiences than a focus on the details of specific user interfaces. That's not to say that an elegant design and a well laid out screen aren't still a huge part of making a great experience.

That said, some of the sites, apps, and platforms we love that have distinguished themselves by providing for great user experiences include Dropbox, Hipmunk, Mint, Tumblr, Feedly, Etsy, and Zappos.

This interview was edited and condensed.


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