Monthly Archives: December 2012

Get the picture?

A little bug bear of mine is ‘help yourself’ software for getting photos printed. I am a freelance photographer in my spare time and so I regularly encounter either in shop or web based programs along these lines and, as yet, I haven’t found one which is 100% usable. This last week  I have encountered two very different versions of this, with varying success so thought today I would do a little review of them;

On Friday came the turn of Jessops, with their in store photo service. You would  expect Jessops, being a photo specialist, to have a pretty good service and I have to say credit where credit is due, it was largely very good. They use a touch screen interface and managed to avoid the usual problems of having to press the screen so hard for it to register your touch that your fingers go numb. The workflow design is quite clear and straight forward, even if they do drag it out a bit, but by and large it was a success. However, one thing that annoyed me intensely is that I had some old printed photos to scan in and get re-printed and some on a  memory stick. I proceeded to scan my images in and then, when prompted, indicated that I wanted to add more images via different media. I did that and then proceeded through the workflow to finalise the order. To my dismay the machine seemed to have completely forgotten my scanned images so having completed the order I then had to go back and scan the pictures again and go through the whole rigmarole. Oh well Jessops, so close to a home run, but fell at the final hurdle (to mix some sporting analogies).

So on to the weekend and the experience of using Tesco Direct’s online photo gift service. I have to confess that I am actually quite a fan of Tesco. Global dominating local shop destroyer aside, I think Tesco is  good thing and I quite like going to one place to get a lot of what I need. They also provide a lot of online services that are really good. Unfortunately this wasn’t one of them. The first problem was that when you select your photo product, in this case a photo mug for my mother, you can’t actually upload your photos from the same area of the site. Instead you have to go to a different area in the navigation, upload your photos, and then go back to the photo gifts bit to do the next bit. The image upload interface was a bit clunky and clearly designed for PC rather than MAC (which I own) but still worked. I will gloss over the use of Flash as a technology (really Tesco? get with the times) and say that it was relatively easy to use, albeit rather clunky. So having done this I went back and selected the mug I wanted and the photo I wanted. Then came problem number two. The photo I wanted was not the exact same size as the photo area on the mug. Tesco provide a little photo position and editing function but this didn’t actually seem to allow anything except sideways movement and it had zoomed in on my image as well so that I was losing most of the image. So it was back to the other area of the site to upload and try and different picture and try again (by this time I was already rather exasperated by the whole experience). The other thing Tesco didn’t seem to get right was that i didn’t want to create an account and they offer a ‘purchase without logging in’ option. However, having completed the mug order I then wanted to add another product and without being logged in it threw an authentication error when I tried to add the second product, only putting its toys back in the pram when I finally relented and created an account.

Two very different experiences, both rather frustrating considering how easy it could be to create these experiences. What is rather annoying about this is the blatant lack of though put into the general user experience in both cases, much of which could have been ironed out by some simple user testing prior to launch. Tesco, in particular, fail spectacularly in making a user go to a completely different section to upload images and if I hadn’t already been halfway through a bottle of wine and a week before Christmas then I would have gone elsewhere by that point. Jessops have created a good experience but it falls down on something significant but simple to solve.

The shame of this is that much work has been done on the UX of online shopping experiences in recent years. Particularly, checkout experiences have been significantly improved and people have accepted there is a best practice (and more importantly a list of no no’s) for creating these. It is such a shame therefore that these people have spent a lot of money to develop something that isn’t quite good enough. There is still a lot of work to be done in ‘help yourself’ online experiences. Come on chaps, stand up to the challenge and get it right!

Don’t be anti-social…

I was recently at a school governors meeting and we were discussing the use of social media by teachers. Another governor made the irritating and rather naive throwaway comment of “the best use is not using it at all”, which from someone who works in IT is irritating at best. But it is interesting to examine what actually lies behind a comment like that. The media has been filled with stories recently about the negative sides of social media, whether it be insulting attacks on Olympic stars via twitter or the copyright issues around a users content on Facebook. But what the media coverage has failed to make clear is that very little of this is actually the fault of the sites themselves and that there are a huge amount of benefits that these sites provide.

One of the problems with social media is that it is faceless in nature, which means some people feel they can be insulting to others and say things that they wouldn’t dream of saying to someone’s face. It is people like this that often ruin the experience for us normal people, but it is also easy to read a comment in a completely different tone to the way it was written and intended. It is something we have to accept, in the same way that we have to accept emails can be read with the wrong tone. And that is the basis of my disagreement with my fellow governors comment.

The one thing we have to accept when we use social media, whether that be as businesses or as people, is that we are using the sites on the terms of the site and not on our own terms. This is a key point that a lot of people seem to forget when they start complaining about Facebook changing the way the site works or the way in which it uses content and data. It is ironic that people are more than happy to take advantage of the platform (which is provided to them for free) when it works for them, but as soon as Facebook decides to change something then all hell breaks lose. But it is important to remember it is Facebook’s platform, not yours or mine, and when we click that little box to accept their terms and conditions we agree that we are using their platform according to their rules, not our own. Let’s be honest, how many people have actually sat down and read any of the terms and conditions in any detail, let alone in full? Well I have had a quick skim through some of them in the past and it is quite enlightening. For example, most of these sites retain the right to use any content that is uploaded to them for promotional purposes. That includes any comments you make, videos you upload and photos you add. You cannot do anything about it because you have agreed to their terms and conditions and if you haven’t read them properly then this is your problem, not theirs. This is the type of thing I find most irritating.

So what is my point? Well the key thing we should all remember is that social media is the largest captive audience online in the world. Facebook claims to have over 800 million users, so there is a massive opportunity to tap into that. O2 recently turned a potential PR nightmare into a huge success on twitter by handling a network outage on a personal level and with humour. they actually managed to get news customers out of a network outage, now that is good social media usage. Why were they so successful with this approach? Because they accepted the platform the way it is, they engaged with it at the right level and they had a conversation directly with their customers on a one to one level. I recently attended the mobile strategies conference and Tom Grinstead (Product Manager at The Guardian) made a profound comment: “People have conversation, brands do not have conversations”. That is what O2 got so right, they spoke as individuals to individuals.

The thing we, as digital practitioners, need to bear in mind is that social media is a great opportunity if we accept the limitations of the platforms and engage with them embracing those, rather than trying to fight them. So far not many businesses have actually managed to show a quantifiable benefit to social media, but I think that is because they are not actually embracing the environments in the right way. Look at Coca-Cola on Facebook. Instead of trying to push their products they are simply about giving people an enjoyable experience. This increases brand awareness and creates a good feeling towards them and that is what social is about. Get the message out there, create ‘advocates’ of your brand and the long term benefit will be that people choose your brand over another. Have conversations directly with them, regularly and in a relevant way and you will get there in the long term.

Social media is not a quick win, it is about relationship building. The sooner businesses realise this and embrace it, the sooner we will really start to see how business benefit. There are plenty of examples of those already doing it.

Our own ingenuity will be the end of us…

For this blog entry I am straying away from the current and into philosophy (and some would argue sci-fi) for a bit. I have been thinking a lot recently about the future of technology and of how it will be integrated into our lives. Most likely actually we will become more and more reliant on it. This concept always raises philosophical issues about the evolution of man and the future of our species, not least because our reliance on technology reduces our own natural ability and this is often not realised until the moment when suddenly we need that ability and don’t have it.

But that aside, my love of sci-fi has recently caused me to reflect on the ‘intelligence’ of machines. This all came about largely because I was thinking about a pivotal moment in computing history; the story of Deep Blue. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Deep Blue was a super computer created by IBM designed to play chess. In 1997 the computer and defeated the Grand Chess Master Garry Kasparov. During that match there was a moment when Kasparov tried to lure the computer into a trap and what happened in response was something quite remarkable. The computer paused for a whole 15 minutes, calculating how the game would pan out. the computer was capable of calculating over 3 million moves a second and genuinely appeared to be contemplating the situation before making a move. When it finally made it’s move it skillfully avoiding the trap before brilliantly out manouevring Kasparov.

Sci-fi has covered all the bases on this subject. As far back as the 30s and 40s Asimov was talking about this sort of thing in his acclaimed Foundation series, but the power of computing means that calculating the probability of outcomes and acting accordingly is very possible for the powerful computers we have and will be creating. People will argue that intelligence in computers is not possible, as they ultimately just do as they are programmed to. But this is short sighted. It is the connected-ness of a system of machines and software that present a potential future where machines have the ability to assess all the possible options and outcomes and then make choices according to ‘absolute logic’. And it is worth noting that we as people are apparently ‘intelligent’ but we actually only operate according to information we have learnt. We have the ability to ‘think’ around this but all that thinking really is, if you break it down to its simplest element, is the ability to find and apply information to address a question that has arisen.

So let me give you an example: It would not be too much of a stretch to imagine a piece of security software that is designed to dynamically identify and create mitigation plans for anything that presents a risk to a ‘system’. If that system was a piece of hardware that should always run then a risk would be the power being turned off. Assessing the risk would reveal that one of the most likely causes of power failure would be human intervention to turn the power off. This software then identifies that a logical solution is to therefore prevent it from being possible for a human to access the power supply controls. It proceeds by assessing possible solutions to see how access by humans to the power supply controls can be prevented and identifies that sealing the area by locking the doors is the best option. A new risk is then immediately identified that humans may try to gain entry by removing the door. So it assesses how to prevent this and comes up with another measure to put in place, this time it is to electrify the door. So it immediately sends a new work request to a mobile maintenance machine to make the necessary changes to electrify the door. And so the cycle continues, following ‘absolute logic’ to remove all risks and escalating to the point at which the ‘system’ is completely protected and self-contained.

Now this might seem a bit far-fetched, but actually it isn’t. There are already automated software programs in existence that monitor environmental conditions and react accordingly, be they fire detection or environment controls. There are also already ‘risk evaluation’ software packages around that provide analysis and resolution options. There are even automated machines that carry out maintenance tasks. If you link the three together then already you have the basis of an autonomous presence that, for all intent and purpose, has the ability to assess a situation, make ‘decisions’ about it and take the relevant action to then prevent it. Add in the ability to dynamically apply sets of rules and information and you have what is basically intelligence.

By complete coincidence, this article was published on the BBC last week, suggesting that this is a subject a lot of us are beginning to worry about. Perhaps this is because it feels like we are on the verge of a new revolution in technology. In the next decade I would predict another leap forward in the way we interact with technology and this may well see more ‘intelligent’ machines being introduced that ‘make decisions’ on our behalf in order that our lives are made easier.

So what is the final thought? Creating machines that are ‘intelligent’ may not lead to the end of the human race, but it could well be the end of us as the dominant and controlling ‘species’ on our planet. By conventional measurements, there will be more machines than humans in the world, they will be capable of autonomous existence and most likely evolution. And they may well make decisions for us about how we should live our lives, whether we like it or not.

I hope you enjoyed my little excursion into philosophical sci-fi.