Sorry for my appearance, I'm just changing is having a makeover. Sorry if some things are a little wonky for a few days.

Dirty, dirty iTunes

You’re so dirty.

Most of the time, Apple are pretty slick with their imagery. I normally pass somewhere between not even noticing the icon (a good result) and thinking “That’s good. How did they do that?”.

However iTunes 11 came out a couple of days ago and my first look at the logo made me think “Urgh, dirty”.

It happens when you get a little too carried away with shadows. Suddenly you lose the crispness and 3D presence and instead it looks like your icon’s spent the day blasting coal and would really like its meat and two veg before it heads off down the pub.

Awkward devs, stroppy designers

There’s a truism in web teams that there’s a tension between the development team and the designers. The cliché is that the devs always know how to create a better UI and the designers are always hobbled by obstinate developers who refuse to implement their designs.

I’ve never worked in such an adversarial situation, but those tensions do regularly exist and a company I’m keen to work with asked me to write about how I deal with that tension.

Working on the UX of a web app is always a collaborative process where it’s important to keep the whole team up-to-date on the direction being taken. If any team members are unhappy with some of the solutions being proposed, my approach would be:

  1. Discuss the nervousness

    With as much of the team as possible, discuss the issues, run through the reasoning behind the approach and get a sound understanding of why team members are nervous about this.

    Possibly there is already user testing available to justify the approach being taken, in which case I’d watch the videos back with the team to establish if there is an issue.

  2. Test the feature

    If I still have confidence in the approach I’d plan the quickest route to testing the feature. This may will meaning building a quick prototype at the minimum level of fidelity that will prove the feature. I’ve previously tested prototypes whilst still at the pencil sketch stage, although it’s usually easy to dummy up the interface using a library such as Bootstrap to get a realistic interface with little effort.

    It may be that there is an obvious “lower risk” alternative to the direction taken, so prototyping this to compare could be a good way of validating which direction is more effective.

    Depending on what the issue is, it can be worthwhile to test with other people around the office as a way of reducing the time to recruit test subjects. Five tests is normally enough and, as much as possible, other team members should come and observe so they get a close up view of how users are reacting to  the feature. Videoing the test can also be a way of allowing more people to observe, editing down the sessions to show only the relevant parts.

    The planning of this testing should be discussed with all members of the team so that everyone is happy with the testing methods.

  3. Discuss the results

    Generally, by the end of this process a clear decision has emerged – or a direction that requires further iteration. A short discussion is normally all that’s required to ensure everyone is happy with the outcome.

    If there is still disagreement it’s normally possible to work out how to alleviate this with the next iteration, or how to track performance on the production build.

    It should be pointed out that this isn’t extra overhead to alleviate a team disagreement, this is the process the project should be following as a general rule.

Be humble

The biggest rule to resolving any issues in UX development is to remain open-minded and humble about what the solutions are going to be. It’s important not to become emotionally attached to a particular solution such that you are blind to its shortcomings.

To help achieve this, testing early in the process and often is a vital tool. If there’s too much time invested in a solution it can be difficult to  discard or change direction if problems become evident.

Teleport, a little miracle for those with two Macs

A control panel I’ve just started using again after a break of a few years is Teleport. To say this extension is a “little miracle” is a completely fair comment if you happen to be sat at a desk with two Macs.

My desk, showing my MacBook Pro and iMac side-by-side.

My desk, showing my MacBook Pro and iMac side-by-side.

Here’s my desk with my MacBook Pro sat alongside my iMac. Most of the time I use the MacBook Pro – it’s quicker and has my email, Twitter client, browsers etc. Most of this syncs to the iMac, but I find it easier just to use the one machine most of the time. I use a bluetooth keyboard and trackpad to make typing more comfortable.

Sometimes though, I need the screen size of the iMac, or I want to view my code in Coda side-by-side with browsers on the second screen. Then having the two Macs comes into its own.

However, switching from one keyboard to another is a bit of a kluge, and if i lean over too far I’m going to fall off my bouncy ball.

This is where Teleport comes and works its magic.

I simply hold down the “Control” key on my keyboard and flick the cursor to the right hand side of the MacBook Pro’s screen. In a feat of extraterrestrial unexpectedness, as if the laws of physics have just been usurped, the cursor teleports through the edge of the screen and appears on the iMac. From then on, my keyboard and trackpad are controlling the iMac, until I hold down “Control” once more and flick the cursor through the left hand edge of the iMac screen and it lands back on the MacBook Pro.

Simple, but simply genius.

Teleport does do a bunch of other clever things. If I hold down the “Command” and “Control” keys it can copy the pasteboard to the other machine, it will wake the other machine if it’s sleeping and you can encrypt the handover to the other machine with a strong certificate to ensure this doesn’t open a back door to bad guys.

I stopped using Teleport a few years back when I had a few problems with the cursor locking up and not being able to return it to the host machine (hold down “Control” “Alt” and “Shift” keys and hit “Escape” to get out of this). This seems to be fixed now, so I can give it a wholehearted thumbs up.

Price of this minor miracle of synchronicity? It’s free. The developer has a Paypal donation button on his site if you want to send him some cash (I did) but he’s now working at Apple, so I doubt he’s going to do a great deal of development on Teleport going forward. He does the odd patch though, so it’s Snow Leopard compatible.

The website’s a bit old school, and doesn’t really explain exactly what Teleport does, so here’s a little video to show the magic at work (with a slightly annoying presenter – but it really does feel like magic).

Mobile satisfies our constant information craving

It takes just two simple charts to show in a moment why mobile is showing such phenomenal growth at present. We never stop having questions and mobile is allowing us to answer those questions when we’re not at the desktop.

Shows the dip in traffic for desktop searches being mirrored by a rise in mobile searches over the weekend.

Shows the dip in traffic for desktop searches being mirrored by a rise in mobile searches over the weekend. (The number of desktop and mobile searches were not specified, so assume they have different 'y' scales.)

Shows the dip in traffic for desktop searches being mirrored by a rise in mobile searches at lunchtime and in the evening.

Shows the dip in traffic for desktop searches being mirrored by a rise in mobile searches at lunchtime and in the evening. (Again, assume mobile and desktop have different 'y' scales.)

These slides come from Google’s “Inside Search” event, where Amit Singal talked about their emphasis on relevance, simplicity and speed being pivotal in their success on mobile.

Watch the presentation

Fixing the “Dickbar”

Why did the Twitter’s Quick Bar in their iPhone app, rapidly renamed the “Dickbar “, cause such a universal outcry in the web community?

Twitter's "Dickbar" in their iPhone app

The grey bar above the search field shows trending topics on Twitter and was named the 'Dickbar'.

Why people hate it

The obvious initial disgust came from a “Where did this useless thing come from – how do I get rid of it?” reaction, which is a fairly common result of adding a new element to a well understood and loved interface. Marco Arment posted a few more reasons that contributed to the furore, particularly the complete lack of relevance of the trending topics highlighted.

The fact is, most of us will have very little in common with the majority of other Twitter users. Charlie Sheen and Lady Gaga offer no interest to me whatsoever, and even they can only attract under 10 million followers, when the total active population of Twitter is now reckoned to be three or four times that number.

So – show me relevant content that I’m interested in and maybe I’ll be happier, and the whole point of Twitter was that we’ve all indicated the people who’s content we’re interested in watching by following them. Twitter’s all about indicating relevance by choosing to follow people with similar interests.

A Quick Bar I’d love

My hunch is, a Quick Bar filled with trending topics constructed from the people I follow would be a really useful dashboard item. It’s a serious challenge to try and crunch the data required in real time, but that’s what Twitter do, that’s their expertise.

This disconnect comes from the usual problem of a business trying to solve its own problems and not those of the user. If they’d allowed the user to see at a glance what topics were most popular in their stream, a useful feature when you’re following a few hundred people, no-one would have been bothered if Twitter had, at the same time, solved its own problem of where to insert its promoted trends and therefore generate some income.

Telstra launches Blurtl… but why?

Today, Telstra launched their Facebook audio status updating service called “Blurtl”.

The Blurtl app on Facebook

Here's how you set up the app in Facebook (after having given Telstra access to all sorts of personal information)

Here’s how it works:

  1. I decide there’s something I really need to say to my Facebook friends, or one friend in particular
  2. I call 0458 258 785 (at standard calling rates)
  3. I listen to a short advert for an unrelated service
  4. I burble some nonsense after the answer-machine style beep
  5. Hey, what fun. Here’s another ad for a Telstra service
  6. A few minutes later the poor quality recording arrives on my wall for anyone who hits the play button to hear
A Blurtl post in my Facebook news feed

Here's how the audio status appears. There's no indication of what the message is about - you just have to press play to find out.

But why?

If I want to call someone – why not call them. I can leave them a message on their phone. Apart from the few limited times when the audio is the context, such as when you’re at a festival and you just have to record the moment when New Order fire up the drum machine for Blue Monday, I don’t see how this will every be useful.

The curse of “reply all”

There’s also a fantastic opportunity to make a complete pig’s-ear of this in a very first-world way. In the same way as “reply all” has given us the opportunity to broadcast comments that were meant for a select person, Blurtl adds another feature that could land many a drunken caller in trouble. The Blurtl Friends feature allows you to preselect up to five of your Facebook friends who can be “Blurtled” individually. However, the way you select which friend when “Blurtling” is by the number they were assigned in the Facebook app. The chance of sending the audio comment meant for your new girlfriend to your Mum instead is quite high!

So why did they do it?

You can imagine the meetings in big telcos.

“The kids aren’t calling each other any more – they’re all on Facebook. Even SMS looks threatened.”

“Why don’t we find a way of charging them to call Facebook?”

“Brilliant! Give that Social Media Consultant a raise.”

It’s a classic case of an old corporation trying to keep it’s old service relevant rather than adapting to the new world. No users were crying out for Blurtl, the Telstra needs it to be more than just a dumb pipe to the internet.

And finally, privacy (of course)

You can’t mention Facebook without getting a little bit concerned about the amount of data you’re revealing about yourself. In this case Telstra gets to know all your basic information, they can post to your wall (to create the Blurtl status updates) and they can do this at any time. Some of this they obviously need for the service to work – but I guess it comes down to “do you trust them not to abuse this ability”. I’m going to grant them access and see what happens – but the first strangely targeted email, SMS or other spam I get I’ll be visiting my Facebook privacy settings to revoke access (although they’ll have the data by then).

The privacy settings for Blurtl

These are the privacy settings granted by default when you add the Blurtl app to your Facebook account.