Category Archives: Browsing

IE – that is, the bane of our lives!

One of the obstacles to progress in digital is the limitations placed upon us by the tools available to users – the browsers and devices. In a perfect world all devices and browsers would use the same code base. We could write some code and we would know that every device and browser would treat it in exactly the same way. But of course we don’t live in a perfect world, instead each developer of a browser or device treats code slightly differently and this adds overheads to projects because we then have to text against each of these. This is why standards like HTML5 and CSS3 are introduced, they are supported across the board (by all the major browsers). But the other problem we have is with legacy versions of browsers. Unfortunately older versions of browsers don’t support newer versions of code, which leaves us with two choices when developing new things:

  1. Use older technologies which limit creativity and make it harder to achieve a good result
  2. Build something that has a ‘graceful fallback’ for browsers that are older

The problem with the above is you have to make a compromise either way, option 1 limits the experience and option 2 adds budget and testing. Of course the 3rd option is to ignore older browsers…which may or may not be at your own peril.

So the online world is frustrating for developers, to say the least. But one particular browser has traditionally caused a lot more problems…and for each generation there is a new version to cause issues. Of course I speak of Internet Explorer, a browser that has become synonymous with cursing developers and irritated clients, inflated budgets and frustrating user experiences. When I first started out in digital the real problem was IE6, which at the time was still used by a lot of bigger organisations despite the fact IE8 was out. Thankfully this relic browser was retired a few years ago but with the emergence of HTML5 and CSS3 IE7 then became the new 6.

We are currently in the throes of developing a new CMS system, which utilizes a lot of the real time JavaScript technology AJAX. This has not only presented us with lots of problems in IE8, but also in the latest versions as well. We are in the position where we have to test the system in Firefox, Chrome and Safari once and then basically rebuild the code just so that IE will use the technology in the same way. Frustrating doesn’t cover it!

A couple of years ago an Australian shopping site got so fed up with the overheads imposed by Microsoft’s browser that they decided to impose a tax on users of the older IE7 browser unless they switched to another browser. Obviously Microsoft weren’t impressed, but maybe they should have taken note of the reasons behind the move.

One of the reasons this has occurred is no doubt that for years Microsoft had an unchallenged share in the market. Pretty much every PC in the world came with Windows and IE installed and for the most part people didn’t know there were alternatives. For Microsoft’s part, they have time and time again chosen to interpret the standards differently to the other browsers, causing issues for developers and bad experiences for users. An example is their interpretation of multiple file uploads. Most browsers would allow you to hold down Ctrl and multi-select files by clicking on them. Microsoft decided, in their infinite wisdom, that in IE you would have to select a file, add it to the queue, then go back and browser for another file, add it, and so on. A ridiculous experience.

Microsoft’s perceived arrogance in this area is being tested now. They continue to make the same mistakes and cause the same problems as they always have done, but they are being forced to change. One of the reasons for this is that IE no longer has a vast majority stake in the browsing market. Gone are the days of dominance, now Firefox and Chrome has made massive advances and on MAC no one would contemplate using IE anyway…lest their MAC would literally shut itself down out of embarrassment. The other reason is that users are becoming more savvy. Users realise that IE isn’t a very good experience when compared to other browsers and so make a choice not to use them. Of course, the growth in the use of devices that don’t have IE as their browser has also helped here. Hopefully Microsoft will take further note and try to converge rather than diverge and let us develop better experiences more easily and cheaply than they currently do.

But a word of warning to finish with. For years Microsoft created a rod for it own back by choosing not to go with the flow and insist on their own proprietary way of doing things. Sound familiar Apple? Already in development we are seeing issues arising that are not seen in other browsers. For example, the way Safari deals with PDF downloads can cause issues without the right plugins. Apple only accept their own formats of certain file types as well. And of course, they are renowned as a company a company that rejects all other tech except their own.

Of course it is unlikely their will ever been a completely unified approach to code and with more and more devices being used this is only going to get worse. Luckily they mostly stick to the standards, but there will always be problems that we need to solve as developers and that is why the job isn’t easy!

Shooting the messenger – a right to forget the point!

An EU court has today backed the right for people to request that Google must amend some search results, in what is becoming known as the “right to be forgotten”. This story, reported on the BBC News website, raises some interesting questions and also possible paves the way for a world wide web police, for which Google must logically be placed.

But first lets look at the court case, which presents a few problems and, much like the “cookie law”, has got quite a few people excited despite having hold of the wrong end of a very large stick. For one, the EU Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding, said in a post on Facebook that it is a “clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans”. I can’t help but feel she has massively missed the point here. Google themselves make the salient point; They do not control data, they only offer links to information freely available on the internet.

What Viviane is failing to see is that this ruling doesn’t solve any problem at all. If people want misleading, inaccurate or otherwise unfair information about themselves to be removed from the internet then asking Google to remove it from search results doesn’t remove it from the internet, it merely stops it being shown in Google. The information itself is still out there as a source for people to find. And you might argue that if it isn’t shown in the most popular search engine (and indeed website) in the world then that solves the problem, but if you believe that you’re probably a bit short sighted. Why? Well quite simply because the online world is changing.

An example of this change is this article, which talks about how the younger generation are consuming the internet through apps rather than browsers. This is significant because the web is moving towards an information warehouse rather than website based approach, where your app of choice will be used to retrieve this information. If this is indeed where the net ends up then Google will no longer be the majority search engine, and therefore the information that Google has obediently hidden will be found again. Not to mention that if the actual content is not removed, it only takes a couple of people to find it and share it and then it is all over the net.

So, what is this ruling actually doing? Well it is shooting the messenger for the ‘crimes’ of others. Google is suffering from being the biggest name in the web. It suits the cause of the advocates, politicians and legal personnel to aim the gun directly at a big name rather than this court case disappearing into obscurity once the actual offending website is dealt with. More to the point, like the cookie law, it will get a lot of normal people who don’t 100% understand how the web actually works riled up and support some piece of law being passed that doesn’t actually solve the problem, just covers it with a plaster for a while.

But there is something else going on here as well, something which many people have seen coming for a while. In placing the responsibility with Google (and presumably other search engines, although none have currently been mentioned) to manage and control this content they have now effectively asked them to start policing the internet. As there are vagaries around exactly when a person can validly ask for content to be removed, there will need to be someone making judgements on what is and isn’t allowed and Google are best placed to do this. They have the biggest reach, the widest data access and the best understanding of content monitoring and assessment. Another perceived advantage is that Google are agnostic of governments and institutions, meaning they are well placed to make impartial judgements (in theory).

Whether or not Google does end up being this web police or not, this court case is a line in the sand. To date the internet is largely uncontrolled and almost anything can be uploaded. But this court case has moved a step closer to a situation where either proactively or retrospectively content is going to be monitored and potentially restricted or even removed. The age of the free internet, the ultimate safe harbour of freedom of speech, may well be coming to an end. Whether this is a good or bad thing however, is a whole different question.

In the meantime, if you see something about yourself online that you don’t think should be there, don’t ask Google to remove it, ask the actual website. That will be much more effective in actually removing the content.

Google+, well it is all a bit anti-social really isn’t it?

Back in June 2011 Google launched their social platform Google+, to great fanfare. Typically there was immediately the usual jumping of ships and people posting hilariously scalding messages about Facebook on their profile,  proclaiming that they would be leaving for the greener pastures of Google and never coming back.

At the time, like many, I was quite dismissive about Google+ going into social media. Whether it was accurate or not, the apparent aspiration to take on Facebook at their own game seemed both foolish and unobtainable to me and I when I took a look at Google’s platform I couldn’t actually see any benefits over and above Facebook. The problem is that I couldn’t see any real attraction for most users and Google’s offering was a regression from the established Facebook functionality.

The most telling thing for these sites though is whether commercial entities try and adopt them or not. Facebook is a nut that many big companies have been trying to crack for years. And they still try, because there is undoubtedly opportunities there for those who approach it in the right way. But what of Google+, how is it fairing nearly 2 years on?

Most significantly it would appear that many of the big corporate names on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest have fallen at the first hurdle with Google+. As eConsultancy write, there seems to be a lot less effort poured into Google+ pages by these big companies. In fact some, McDonald’s being the biggest example, haven’t done anything on their Google page since they created it! So why is this significant? Well my view would be that watching the behaviour of the corporates on these platforms tends to offer a window into the platform itself. No one has really cracked commercial return on investment on social media yet, but the fact that the big names poor effort into some but not offers does indicate which ones they see as being significant players. In the case of Google+ it would seem the consensus is that it is not.

The reality is that we, as users, only have so much time to spend on social sites. The idea that Google+ and Facebook would end up sharing the market was, to be frank, rather rediculous. Facebook’s massive hold on the social market was always going to be a telling factor and most people are simply not interested in the upheaval of moving themselves across to another site when all their friends and content are already on Facebook. The irony for Google is that if there had been a mass agreement in the user base to move then it would likely have shut the doors at Facebook, but as users we like consistency and ease of use – even if we like to moan about Facebook and their adhoc changes. This view would seem to be supported by the fact that all those people who grandly marched off to Google+ never to be seen again have all slowly slunk back, tails between their legs.

Google+ claims to have 500 million users currently, but I wonder how many of those are active on the platform. In the end, my view is that Google’s core business is about data. I don’t believe they were ever stupid enough to think they were going to takeover Facebook’s place in the market, so there must have been another behind moving into the social space. I have nothing to back up this assertion, but imagine how powerful they could be if they had the ability to use personas as yet another way of personalizing search? If they had a way of identifying the type of person you are based on in depth research, through a social media site, then they would be able to sell advertising space that targeted not just search terms and locations, but the type of person as well. Is this why Google+ was created, as a persona research method? Only Google will know the answer to that one.

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!

Anyone for a Cookie?

There has been a lot of chat about the so called “Cookie Law” in recent months, largely around whether or not to comply, what is compliant and what it is actually about. Well the first thing to understand about the “cookie law” is that it is about more than just cookies. The focus of the law is about storing information about the user (usually stored in text files in the browser called “cookies”), no matter what that information is. I am not going to go into the details of the law now, as you will no doubt already know the gist of it and if you don’t then the ICO website can help better than I can.

The key thing about this law that most people have failed to grasp though is not the specifics, it is the underlying point. The reason why so many people have got so animated about this law is nothing to do with technology and it is nothing to do gathering analytics, it is about trust. The simple truth is that if we are storing information about a user, without their consent, and they become aware of this then they will start to lose trust in the website and brand. It is not important whether we are storing information that can be related specifically to them or if it is something as high level as where they are going. The point is that we are storing information that affects how we treat them, even if it is anonymous.

We, as digital providers, know that a large proportion of the cookies we use are to see how people are using our websites or to provide users with specific / personalised functionally. But for the general public it is a different matter all together. They don’t understand how the technology works or how we use it and so finding out that we treat them in specific ways based on what they do is quite annoying for them. And I can understand this, I wouldn’t want other people to make decisions about how they treat me without me having any say at all.

So cutting through the murk, what does this mean for us? We (as people who store info for good reasons) have to accept that we are in this situation because of the rather less desirable people who have abused this technology in order to ‘stalk’ people around the web trying to market things. We can’t change that, we can’t change where we are now and not complying is actually not going to help anyone. Instead, we find ourselves with responsibilities as people designing these sites; The first of these is to tell people what we are doing, in plain English, explaining the benefits of the technology and the disadvantages of opting out. The second is to make sure that we only capture data that is absolutely needed. If you don’t need to know someone’s location then don’t capture it, simple as that. And lastly, give people the chance to opt out easily should they choose to. As long as they understand what opting out means then it should be their choice.

Whilst this is an annoying situation to be in, I think this can only be a good thing in the long run. Most people are willing to accept data being stored about them as long as they understand why and it is providing them with a clear benefit. I know I am. This heightened awareness in the public will surely allow us to push the boundaries forwards in the future in terms of personalisation. And for those who initially opt out…well they will soon be converted when they realise how good an experience they can get if they embrace these technologies.

Does the mini iPad spell the end for the dedicated mobile site?

Like many, I remain a bit confused as to exactly what the target audience for the half size tablet is? Rather skeptically I have come to the conclusion that companies like Apple simply don’t feel they have enough products to flog, so with the impending festive period approaching the mini iPad is a way to make sure the Christmas party budget is suitably large again. But one thing that does occur is that Apple dipping their toe into the mid-sized device market probably spells the beginning of an influx of devices of this size.

As digital practitioners should we be particularly bothered by this? Well my view would be that there is one significant implication of this new sized tablet and that is that realistically it spells the end of the mobile website. What do I mean? Well realistically most normal ‘desktop’ websites can also be used quite easily by a tablet like the iPad and so many companies made the decision to have a specific mobile site to cater for the small mobile screen sizes. And this was a valid approach. The problem is that neither of the above two sites will be suitable for the mid sized tablet. The old problems of having to zoom in and out or scroll will occur on a ‘desktop’ site and a mobile site simply won’t be designed to fit the screen well.

For me, this is the moment that responsive websites are going to emerge as a clear favourite in place of a separate mobile site. Unless, of course, you happen to have a huge amount of money and resource available to create a mobile, midi and full sized site, this is surely going to be the only way to produce a site that will work for everyone, fit the screen well and not invoke a huge amount of maintenance. The shame about this is that mobile websites are specifically designed to be mobile experiences, complete with mobile related design and experience considerations. Responsive sites, although extremely cool and often a good experience, cannot cater specifically and separately for the mobile, midi or desktop experience and this means that potentially users are going to lose out in some way.

It will be interesting to see how the digital world responds to this size format in the next couple of years and if responsive sites will evolve into even more clever implementations. The challenge has certainly been laid down, so it is time for us UX practitioners to respond.

Tablet Devices #1 – what did the Roman’s ever do for us?

I have just bought myself an iPad 3, which is my first foray into actually owning a tablet device. Although I have used them at friends and at work since the first incarnation of Apple’s trend setting device emerged, until now I haven’t actually taken that leap. But when I was out having dinner with my wife the other day I also overheard a conversation where one woman said that she was thinking of replacing her ageing computer with an iPad. And this got me to wondering; why do we have such a fascination is with tablet devices?

The concept of a tablet isn’t exactly a new one. The Roman’s taught their children to read and write with wax tablets and used them to document and share ideas. It certainly saved carrying round reams of paper and was convenient to carry with you. Is this the reason why we like tablet devices, convenience? I think it is definitely a key part, but perhaps it is the evolution of the browsing experience which can also explain why we love them so much?

Back in the dark days of home computing, where a hulking great machine sat in a dim dark corner of the room, grunting away and squealing like a pig every time you went online, browsing was a very individual experience and largely confined to the realms of research. The internet was a reference point but not much more (unless you wanted to download an essay to submit as your own!). With the proliferation of home wi-fi networks though, we were suddenly able to sit in our comfy armchairs or lie on the bed with our heads buried in our shiny laptops instead, with no need to talk to anyone else at all. The evolution of the web from a research tool to an entertainment provider also meant we started to spend more time online, with social networks drawing more of us online with each passing day. But laptops simply aren’t the most ideal design for easy browsing (or for fitting on our laps whilst crushed into overly small train seats).

Smart phones were the next logical step, with people wanting to access their web experience whilst on the move, without having to haul around a laptop, but even today a lot of sites are simply not suitable for a good browsing experience. So along came tablet devices, with the ability to have a convenient and portable experience but on a full resolution screen. But more than that, suddenly we had a device designed to be ergonomically pleasing to use.

Tablets provide a portable experience, that feels natural, is convenient in size and easy to use. What I think is most amazing is that tablets, more than any other device, have started to bridge the age gap in using technology. The ease of use makes it simple for my 3 year old to sit and play on apps, or for my grandmother to read a news article. It is convenient to use in the car on journeys so our children can watch films in high definition or for me to take notes in a meeting. In short, it really is a master of all trades rather than a jack of one (to mix an analogy).

But what does all this mean for the digital world and how we develop websites? My next blog post will talk about how tablet devices have changed both the way in which we consume the internet and what we expect from it.