Friday, April 30, 2010

The Realities of The Fantastic Tavern #TFTLondon

Yesterday I had my first opportunity to visit The Fantastic Tavern. (It's like a software user group but aimed at designers)  The theme of the night was "[Augmented] Realitites".

A couple of more details write ups of the event can be found at:

At the end of the night the open Q&A was concluded with an unanswered question about how to prevent a situation where you look through your AR application to see hundreds (thousands) of additional competing pieces of information all laid over (and probably obscuring) the image?

I have a different but related question though. How do we get to that point? At the moment all AR apps are separate and you could potentially have dozens on a device. How do you combine the information from different applications? Is anyone looking at/making a way to do this?  And are they doing it in a way that avoids the overload feared in the original question?

My other question:
All AR apps seem to be driven by the person specifically using a device. Is anything being developed where the location identifies the person and provides additional relevant information to them?  At an extreme case think of the iris recognition in Minority Report.  But on a more practical (and realisitic/easily achievable) level what about ticket booths at railway stations. Why not give me useful information while waiting to buy my ticket? For instance, if I buy a ticket to a location I've not visited before (based on previous purchases made with that card) why not tell me which platform I need and show me directions.

As I was tired and the place was very hot and noisy I didn't hang around for long afterwards. Lots of interesting ideas though.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Please [don't (?)] peek at Orange

This is a really poor quality photo (taken with my phone) of one of my local orange stores.  As you probably can't tell. The store is currently closed for a refit.  The entire front of the store is covered with black paper.  In large letters it says "hey, no peeking" and then there are some generic numbers you can call for more information.  On the other window (not shown) it says when the store will be reopening and has details of the nearest alternate store.

While I can appreciate that they are trying to have a sense of humour with the message being displayed. The entire store front basically says "go away".  This doesn't strike me as the best things they could have done with what's a potentially very valuable opportunity to engage with potential customers.

Why not take this opportunity to engage with potential new/future customers?
Instead of stopping people from seeing what you're doing why not show them?
Or better still, why not show them something that intrigues, entertains and encourages interest and word of mouth?

Here's what I'd do:
Instead of having paper covering the whole store front, I'd leave gaps and encourge people to look through.
I'd create the gaps at different heights (including very low and very high - deliberately making it harder for everyone to see everything) and behind each I'd have something different.  Behind some I'd have static images, promtions, info, etc.  I'd also have competitions and discounts avaialble on a text to win basis.  Any such prizes would of course be linked to discounts limited to the day of reopening.
But behind certain key gaps I'd have screens and while some may occasionally provide information on when the store will reopen the real value would be in having unique, entertaining footage.  This could be all sorts of things: It could look like the store was completely missing; what if it looked like the store was being filled with something completely ridiculous - animals, water, a ball pool?; it could look like people supposedly doing the refit but who suddenly break into dance.  The only limit would be imagination (oh and cost) but such footage could potentially be reused across multiple store refits and then made available online.
  • How many people just walk straight past a store that's closed for refit?
  • How many would stop to peek in if they thought they'd get to see something they normally wouldn't?
  • If you walked past a store that was obviously closed but had people clammering to peer in at the window, wouldn't you be at least slightly curious yourself?  Admit it, there's a bit of a voyeur in all of us.
  • Who's done something like this before? (in the UK?) Don't you think people would talk about it? And want to come and see for themselves?  And at the same time being educated about the reopening and the brand in general.

In that, as Orange, I'd know who had bought a phone there before or lived nearby and was shortly due an upgrade I'd email or SMS them (subject to previously expressed mailing preferences) to let them know a bit about some of the new phones that will be available when the store reopens.  I'd also, obviously, tell them when it would reopen. And I'd tell them to come and have a peek in the window to see what was going on while the refit was going on.

The aim would be to engage with [potential] customers, promote the newly refurbished store and encourage word of mouth that means that when the store reopens more people will be aware of it and be eager to see what has actually changed.

Well, that's what I'd do.

I hope the refit doesn't get rid of the fish tank they used to have.  Disappointinglyt that was often far more interesting than most of the phones there.

Oh and for the record, I've had (among others) a contract with Orange for more than 12 years, but I'm frequently starting to wonder why.

Avoiding a substandard product

“If you don’t have a triad of a designer, technologist, and business professional all coming to the table with equal skills and equal levels of creativity, the result will be a substandard product” 
– Bill Buxton 2010

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

More boats in the water

At the start of the year the blogosphere was, as ever, full of predictions for the coming year.
A common trend among many predictions was that there would be a thinning of the numbers of companies in the mobile OS business.

With Palm now up for sale we're starting to see some of those predictions beginning to come true.

A common prediction was that Microsoft would end up leaving the mobile space.

Almost in contrast to popular opinion, I tried to argue that they wouldn't.  I claimed that mobile was to important for Microsoft to not be in the party.  I said they wouldn't just roll over and die.
For over a year Microsoft had been talking about their "3 screens and a cloud" strategy but had hardly made any real indication of what the experience around the phone screen would really be.  I thought this noticeable in it's absence.
At the time Windows Phone 7 hadn't formally been announced - but we all knew it was coming, just not what it would be.

So here we are in mid April.  Windows Phone 7 (now without any reference to "series") has been more positively rceived than most would have expected.  Plus, the Kin has also now been announced to much praise.

So what's all this got to do with boats?
Well, in a Twitter conversation at the time I used that analogy of shipping.  I said that to be successful in the mobile industry you needed the flexibility of a fleet of canoes, while Microsoft had been more like an oil tanker.
Now, while Microsoft is still a large vessel in the water it's giving the impression of being surrounded by a floatiller of smaller craft.

Beware the lollipop!

"Beware the lollipop of mediocrity. Lick it once and you will suck it FOREVER."
- Brian Wilson

Friday, April 09, 2010

Is Windows Phone 7 not having multi-tasking a good thing?

A number of people have been complaining that Windows Phone 7 won't have multi-tasking of apps.  They see this as a limitiation of the platform or some kind of insult to their rights as an application developer to be able to develop an application which works however they want it to.

Typically, the issue here is about creating applications which run in the background.

Firstly, let's be clear. Windows Phone 7 is a multi-tasking operating system. Many of the applications which come with the phone will run in the background. What Microsoft will be doing, though, is stopping other (3rd Party) applications installed on the phone from running in the background.

Why are they doing this?
Simply to preserve battery life. But wait. There's more. This isn't just about mainiting battery life for it's own sake.  It's about trying to ensure that the person who owns/uses the phone has a consistent positive experience with it.  If an application, running in the background, causes the battery life of the phone to be greatly reduced, the user won't blame the application. They'll think "that's a rubbish phone with a really short battery life". There, in one quick decision by the application developer, they've turned the users opinion of Windows Phone 7 (Microsoft shiny new brand) into a bad one. In doing so, such developers are not only hurting the platform they are also hurting themselves. For Microsoft it's more important that the user has a good experience with their phone than the developer can do whatever they want. Yes, you could consider that the bad programmers (those who don't know how to - or maybe even that they should - preserve battery life) have potentially spoilt it for the rest of us. However...

It's not all doom and gloom!
Windows Phone 7 supports a notification service which allows services running elsewhere (be it on a server or somewhere else in the cloud) to notify code on the phone. (i.e. Send a message to an application on a specific device.) This means that many operations which may be done by polling on lots of devices can be done once on a server. This invariably preserves device resources and likely reduces network connectivity (assuming an off device resource being queried by the app).

Why is it good that Microsoft have done this?
Because it forces developers to understand that preserving battery life is important. (This is one of my 5 pillars of good mobile development.)
In time this should help educate developers to better understand the needs of the platform. This should lead to better developers making better apps for happier customers. Everyone wins!

Why do people/developers think they need multi-tasking?
Probably one or more of:
Because they've had it before. (With Windows Mobile)
Because they don't understand the alternatives.
Because they're too lazy to do it another way.
Because they don't understand who Windows Phone 7 is for and therefore trying to do something inappropriate.

This is not Windows Mobile!
Windows Mobile was many things. While Windows Phone 7 is descendant from the Windows Mobile lineage it is a very different creation.
It won't make sense to port a lot of Windows Mobile applications to Windows Phone 7. (even if lots of developers want to.)

Will it always be like this?
For Windows Phone 7 probably.
Beyond that it's harder to say. If it's appropriate to the device and how it's intended to be used  I would expect it to be. I would, however also expect developers to become more used to doing processing in the cloud and therefore not needing to do as much in the background as they may be used to.
Microsoft have said that they will be willing to reconsider this in the future and may allow back ground tasks/multi-tasking in future version of Windows Phone. Even WP7!

What about other background tasks?
Other background tasks such as responding to events on the phone/device currently aren't supported. Maybe some will be in the future. But that's probably a discussion for another day...

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Windows Phone User Group

I've started to see if there is any interest in starting a Windows Phone focused User Group in London.

As a long time Windows Mobile developer, I have often lamented the lack of a user group focuse in this area.

With the excitement and opportunities which Windows Phone 7 is bringing, now seems like a good time to do something about it. If no-one else is going to do anything, I will.

For a long time, I've found user groups an excellent way to learn about new technologies.  They offer an opportunity to learn from and with other interested people whihc is unique.
While many user groups have previously had the occasional session/presentation/demo on Windows Mobile, I feel there is something extra which can be gained from the depth which can be explored and discussed when focusing in a specific area.

(You may have guessed I like user groups as I run DevEvening.)

First things, first, I'm trying to find out if others also share an interest in this area and would be interested in attending such a user group.
If this is something which might be of interest to you, please show your interest by following @wpug on twitter.
If there is sufficient interest (which it's starting to look like there might be) I'll no doubt be looking for a venue and speakers.  If you can help with either of these, please get in touch.

Please also spread the news to anyone you think may be interested.

Thank you please.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Frequently Asked Questions?

Almost every website or piece of software comes with a list of 'Frequently Asked Questions' or FAQs.

They exist as a form of self-help for the person who is or may be using the site/app.
In theory they're a good thing.  They answer the questions that people want to know and they don't have to directly contact the provider of the website or service.  This saves time (and money) for both the asker and askee.

Do they actually help?

If you have them on your site are you checking if they are actually answering the questions people have and/or solving their problems?
Are you checking that the people who read them are getting the answers they want or need?

Are they really 'frequently' asked?

How was the list first populated?  Did you just guess at the questions you thought people would ask? or are these the questions that people are asking (during early testing) and you don't have a better way of responding to?
Are you monitoring the questions that people are asking to you? and updating your FAQs appropriately?
If they're not frequently asked, do they need to be in the list? Taking up space and potentially hiding more valuable questions/answers.

Could you do without, at least, some of them?

Is this the best way to respond to genuine questions from customers or prospective customers?
If these questions are important could they answered in a better way than hidden in a list?
If the question is about the benefits or use of the site/app, could the benefit not be made more obvious or the site/app be made easier to use?
If the question is about an error or problem with the site/app, is this being addressed and the FAQ only displayed, temporarily, until this is fixed?

Ease of use is hard - people don't believe computers can be easy

Another lesson I've learnt from spending some time answering support emails recently is that people don't always expect computers to be clever.
This seems contradictory to the (apparently mis-)conception that people think computers are clever and can do remarkable things.

The issue in question relates to the entry of a unique alphanumeric code.  This code is printed on an insert that is distributed with various products.  Anyone purchasing one of these products can enter the code in a website to enable certain movie downloads.  The codes are 16 characters long and divided into groups of four characters with a hyphen. (The hyphen is intened to break the code up and make it easier to read.)

Unfortunately, some people have trouble reading and/or entering the codes.  To try and solve this problem themselves they try and use a different case, or use spaces instead of hypens, or remove the hyphens completely.

Guess what?

In this instance it makes absolutely no difference. The website is smart enough to ignore case and any spaces or non-alphanumeric characters.  This was deliberately done to try and account for variations in the ways people may enter the code.

So why do people try these variations?

Because for a lot of other situations/apps this may [have] work[ed].  That they do respond to this is simply due to not considering the user adequately.  Indirectly, they are also teaching users that they must do things in special ways that are easier for the computer and not them.  This definitely contradicts the idea that computers should make things easier for people.

None of this is the fault of the computer or the person trying to enter the code. This is learnt behaviour, caused by prior experiences with other poorly developed software.

The real problem in this instance is most probably due to the legibility of the printed characters.  A separate issue that is being addressed separately.

The other lesson to learn here is that when making software (or anything?) that works much better than anything people have used before you have to teach (or tell) the user that what you've developed is better.