Sunday, November 07, 2010

A note-taker's tool

The law of unintended consequences describes the fact that many actions have results that are unplanned, and frequently undesirable. Economists also talk of "perverse incentives", whereby legislation or market manipulation intended to produce one outcome result in another. For example, when my company, Information and Design, owned motor vehicles, my accountant on one occasion suggested that I might "take a spin to Canberra" (a 1,500 km round trip) to clock up an odometer reading that would result in a tax benefit.

Unintended consequences are not necessarily negative, however.

Last week I bought an Echo Smartpen from Livescribe. It can record and play back audio, but I wasn't interested in that particular feature. What interested me was its ability to record my handwriting and, with the aid of add-on software MyScript, convert it to text.

In my work, I spend a lot of time talking to people in a variety of locations - homes, workplaces and, currently, schools. I take a lot of handwritten notes, and generally need to convert them to electronic format for further analysis (such as coding or affinity diagramming). It would be ideal if I could take notes directly into a computer, but this is inappropriate for several reasons, primarily the fact that it lowers the  quality of the conversation and interferes with flow. So there's no real substitute for handwriting. (Audio recording can be useful but is inefficient and frequently inappropriate.)

As soon as possible after each interview I sit at a computer and type in my notes. It's not entirely wasted time, since it's an opportunity to revisit the conversations and consider what I've learned, and to make notes about issues, design implications and so on. However, it's overly tedious and time-consuming.

Any system that would allow me to automate the process, at least to some extent, is attractive. A few years ago I had a brief look at a pen-based recording system (perhaps an earlier iteration of the Echo Smartpen; I don't recall) and decided it was inadequate.

In the week since I bought the pen I conducted around ten interviews over the course of two non-consecutive days, and it was an opportunity to trial the system.

I should mention that the pen uses special paper. Apparently you can print your own paper on a laser printer, but the purpose-made notebooks are not overly expensive so I just used one of them.

On the first day of interviews, I used my "printed" handwriting, and the results were less than adequate. While I saved some time in transcription, the recognition rate was low, and the effort in fixing up my notes was significant.

My printed handwriting produced poor results
On the second day, I switched to cursive "joined-up" handwriting, and I took some care (certainly more than usual) in trying to make my writing legible.

My handwriting has never been brilliant, and I've been using keyboards almost exclusively since my mid teens. I remember my father's handwriting being particularly legible; he was a civil servant in the days prior to computers, so it was a necessary skill. Gina's handwriting is also generally excellent, especially when she uses a drafting style. She tells me that everyone in her industrial design course could write well, because it was still a necessary skill in the days when engineers and drafts-people  were on the cusp of having ready and affordable access to tools like Autocad (which, incidentally, Wikipedia informs we was first released in 1982).

In any case, when I try, I can write in a passable readable script, and I found that my Day 2 notes were rendered acceptably well by the MyScript software. I spent around one hour cleaning up and revisiting 21 pages of hand-written notes - much less time than I would normally spend.

Purely from the point of view of conducting ethnographic research, then, the Smartpen and MyScript software are indispensable. The 4GB version of the pen cost less than AUD $250, and the software around AUD $30 (roughly the same in US dollar amounts at present), and they've already paid for themselves.

If you take field notes, and are willing to put some effort into ensuring your handwriting is reasonably legible, this is a revolutionary tool. Mind you, if you buy the pen, expect to be irked by the extremely ugly pen lid. This must be detached to write, and since it can't be attached to any other part of the pen, you're pretty much guaranteed to lose it. In acknowledgement of this fact, a spare cover is included, which you can lose at your leisure.

The pen is not as nice to hold as, for example, my Cross ballpoint, but it's acceptable. I imagine that there is room for later generations to become more compact and elegant.

As for the unintended benefit, my handwriting has improved for the first time since I was in primary school. I expect further payoff and further improvement, although perhaps not to the point where the quality of my handwriting approaches that of my father's.

Cursive gave better results - but still with room for improvement!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A failure of empathy

Telstra is a major Australian telco. CEO David Thodey has a stated goal of making the organisation more customer focused. This is laudable and necessary. Thodey suggested in June that it could take 5 years to achieve.

It occurred to me recently that Telstra exhibits a failure of empathy. Take as a fairly typical example the notice shown in the image. It informs the customer (me in this instance) that their account is overdue, but it fails to tell me the relevant phone number.

I find it amazing that an organisation can fail so utterly to speak the language of its customers. When I first saw this notice, I didn't know whether it was for my mobile phone or my home phone. I associate my phones with phone numbers, not with account numbers.

Telstra may argue that it's necessary to use account numbers, since some customers will have multiple phone numbers on a single account. This explanation has some credibility when it comes to businesses, but even in that circumstance I would expect to see at least one associated phone number listed.

If anyone involved in the wording of this notice had put themselves in the place of a customer, it would surely have occurred to them that providing a phone number would be extremely useful, and that failing to do so creates (or reinforces) a perception of Telstra as an uncaring monolith. The idea that I should have to go through my records to do the cross-referencing is ludicrous.

In user experience design, we use very simple techniques (such as scenarios and personas) to help put us in the shoes of our users.

On its path to become customer focused, a useful step for Telstra would be to examine at all its outgoing communications, consider the context in which they may be received, and adjust them accordingly.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Post-release usability testing

I've often said that everyone does usability testing - but some do it post-release.

These days most organisations tend to do usability testing, at least of important functions, before release. I was surprised, therefore, when Crust Pizza (who do very nice pizzas, by the way) updated their online ordering with a flaw that prevents it working on the iPad - surely an increasingly typical device from which to order. As you can see from the images below, there's a scrollable area in the middle of the screen from which to "customize" one's pizza. This is bad enough on a regular browser (as many people will not notice the scroll bar), but on the iPad the scroll bar doesn't appear at all.

Of course Crust will eventually become aware of this problem (although there is no mechanism to contact "head office" from the website, people can contact individual franchisees). But it is rather an expensive and public way to conduct usability testing.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Diving into The Shallows

I've often been blasé about the ability to offload memory to the net. Though not a “digital native”, I've been an intensive user of computers for so many years that it's difficult to imagine life without them.

When I started to come across references to Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, I confess to an initial negative reaction. Perhaps reinforced by some of the reviews I scanned, I had the impression that this might be a book complaining about “young people today” and their dependence on the internet.

When I picked up the book, however, I realised that last year I'd read a previous book of Carr's, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google. That's a brilliant discussion of the significance of cloud computing, in which Carr compared the advent of the cloud to the advent of the electric grid, which freed manufacturers from the need to be located adjacent to sources of power (typically running water) and from the need to have in-house expertise in non-core technology.

Perhaps it's telling that I'd forgotten the author's name, since Carr's book focuses much attention on the topic of memory.

Without wanting to do the book an injustice, it's probably fair to summarise it as follows:

  • The tools we use change our brains and the way we think
  • Human memory is not analogous to computer memory
  • Our use of the internet is detrimental to the ability to reflect and synthesise.

The tools we use

The book includes a very detailed analysis of the way in which our tools affect us. Carr contends that tools have a physical affect on our brains, in the way that London taxi drivers develop an enlarged posterior hippocampus due to demands placed by their need to navigate and remember.

He also suggests that those of us involved in the design or deployment of internet technology are not equipped to understand the profound changes that the internet will enable. “The intellectual ethic of a technology is rarely recognized by its inventors,” he writes. “Our ancestors didn't develop or use maps in order to enhance their capacity for conceptual thinking... Nor did they manufacture mechanical clocks to spur the adoption of a more scientific mode of thinking. Those were by-products of the technologies. But what by-products!”

Looking at how the internet may be “re-wiring” our brains, Carr suggest that it presents us with a self-reinforcing medium, encouraging us to think and respond rapidly, but with limited depth. “Links don't just point us to related or supplemental words; they propel us towards them.”

The internet disrupts our concentration and feeds our apparently insatiable appetite for what is new – with email, RSS, updates from Twitter and Facebook, and instant results from Google all feeding an ongoing fascination with the ephemeral.

Carr himself admits to being an addict, and describes the process of temporarily weaning himself away from the constant chatter, as well as the process of readmitting it as he finished his book, when he bought a Blu-ray player with built-in Wi-Fi. “It lets me stream music from Pandora, movies from NetFlix, and videos from YouTube... I have to confess: it's cool. I'm not sure I could live without it.”


The “offloading” of memory to the net is an attractive idea. Why bother remembering boring stuff when we can Google an answer at will? It seems almost perverse to attempt to recollect a trivial detail.

Many of us treat the internet as if it were an extension of human memory. There is an implication that our memory is similar (but perhaps inferior) to silicon. Carr cautions against this view, and states that people who hold it “have been misled by a metaphor.” “Biological memory is alive. Computer memory is not”.

The book contains a fascinating discussion of the role of human memory and its relationship to the ability to think deeply and synthesise.

Using the internet

Carr suggests that there are many pitfalls in our internet usage. Although he is quick to acknowledge – and celebrate – the boons, he also cautions that our tendency to skim has complications. For example, he quotes research suggesting that the ready availability of online sources has resulted in a narrowing of research, with researchers choosing from a a relatively small range of sources whose popularity is further amplified by this very phenomenon.

For a critical look at the machine we're building and the ways in will change our lives, read this fascinating and thoroughly researched book. Carr doesn't suggest how we can retain the benefits while minimizing the risks, but this marks the beginning of a fascinating discussion.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Repeating email addresses

A few days ago James Hunter and I were talking about why forms often require the user to repeat their email address. I've always found it irritating, although I'll happily concede that for people who don't spend an inordinate amount of time filling in online forms, it's at most a petty annoyance.

There are two reasons for requesting the repetition:

  1. The email address is a key piece of information, without which it may not be possible to complete the transaction (such as a registration process)
  2. The email address may be a relatively complex string, and a high degree of precision is required for it to be used successfully.

However, these apply equally to a credit card number or card holder name (for example), even though I can't recall a form asking me to repeat those fields. In fact I have mistyped my credit card number on occasion, but the resulting error, or non-confirmation of the transaction, has alerted me to the fact.

The credit card number is a slightly different case, of course, since it is more amenable to parsing and, consequently, error trapping. (Some email address parsing is also possible if the address is not "well formed".)

I find the requirement to repeat the email address patronising and unnecessary. If I really want something and I mis-enter my email address, I am likely to notice I haven't received the service I requested. I don't actually need the sort of hand-holding that a repeated email address implies.

When I run design sessions, and a registration is required, I find that initial designs almost always require the email address to be repeated. When questioned, people generally don't have a rationale other than the fact that it's common practice, and that users "might make a mistake". However, there's seldom any concern about making a mistake with any other information.

There's also an underlying assumption that having a user enter their email address twice will eliminate errors. It won't. Some users are unsure of their email address, and will dutifully enter the wrong address twice.

I've observed many people use copy-and-paste to copy the address from the first field into the second. In my experience, the presence of such workarounds is invariably a sign that there's something amiss from a user experience perspective.

Some implementations take the even more patronising approach of disabling the ability to paste the address into the confirmation field.

Amazon and Facebook both require new customers to repeat their email addresses, although Amazon does not do so until the second step (thus keeping the initial form simpler).

Google doesn't require Gmail users to repeat their email addresses (at least in the selection of processes I checked).

It would be very interesting to know what data on user behaviour informs these different approaches. What does Google know that Facebook doesn't (or vice versa)?

I don't have enough data to support my opinion on this, but, for me, being perceived as patronising is likely a poorer outcome than risking the occasional failure due to mis-typing.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The future of car ownership?

l'auto del futura dal 1950
Informal car sharing must have existed from the earliest days of personal motorised transport.

A few months back I signed up to GoGet, one of the two major Australian car share schemes (the other is Flexicar). I chose GoGet because they have more cars near our Sydney apartment.

With GoGet, users pay a regular monthly fee and a usage fee, with variants based on usage patterns.  Because I’d signed up out of curiosity, I chose the zero monthly fee option, which attracts the highest usage rates.

In fact I’ve never used the service in Sydney. Gina has a perfectly serviceable little Peugeot diesel, but we’d probably average no more than 10 or 15 km per week.
Uploaded - 20\07\2008-2

Recently I used the GoGet service when we spent a weekend in Melbourne. I flew down on Thursday evening, checked into our hotel, and then picked up the share car from a car park about 5 minutes’ walk away.

I’d booked online, choosing a a Mini Cooper, and the whole process was very simple: Book the car, place my membership card near the windscreen to unlock, and drive away. When we were finished, I returned the car to its dedicated spot, and walked away.

The next day I also booked a car. The Mini Cooper wasn’t available, so I got a rather boring (sorry, Toyota) Yaris.

Proponents of car-sharing schemes make much of the fact that the average car is largely unused – parked, in other words. I think this argument is somewhat spurious, since it could apply to pretty much any purchased objects. Our apartment, for example, is unused for at least 30% of the time. However, cars are somewhat amenable to more efficient usage, and car-share schemes are a step in that direction.

Car-sharing dovetails nicely with a trend away from minimum parking and towards maximum parking. Traditionally, local government regulations have specified that new developments – commercial or residential – must meet certain minima to ensure there is sufficient parking of residents or customers. Recently, in several countries (even in parts of the USA), local governments have specified maxima instead, effectively restricting the number of car spaces available.

Car-sharing schemes also coincide with enabling technologies – GPS, RFID and Web 2.0 self-service models.

The economics of car-sharing are very attractive from a consumer perspective. For a relatively small fee (compared with cost of ownership), urban dwellers can have convenient access to a car when needed.

There are still improvements to make. For example, the ability to drop a car at a different destination would be useful, but this is at least partly dependent on having a sufficient volume of share cars in operation.

And I’d like a little more choice - a manual transmission rather than an auto, for example, and something a little gutsier than a Toyota Yaris.

It would also be convenient if a standardised approach existed, so that customers could readily get a car when outside their home area or country. This is analogous to the way in which we now expect to be able to use our mobile phones when we travel with a minimum of dislocation.

My statement from GoGet in the month I used their service suggested that I had saved almost AUD $700 compared with the cost or owning a car. "If you still own a car, and didn't use it at all this month", said the statement, "it would have cost you $639.93. Why not get rid of it?"

Why not, indeed.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Bike share as service design

Recently Melbourne launched a bicycle share scheme. The uptake so far has been low. There have been suggestions that this is due, at least in part, to the launch taking place in winter.

However, an important factor is that in Australia it is mandatory to wear a helmet when cycling, and the scheme does not provide helmets. The first photograph contains, to my mind, both question and answer. The tag is "Short trip? Why not take a bike?". At the bottom right is a "safety first" image of an encased head, showing precisely why it is inconvenient to take a bike for that short trip.

I don't want to join the debate about whether bicycle helmets should be mandatory, but for those not familiar with the debate, it can be summarised as follows:

Advocates of mandated helmets state that individual cyclists are offered some protection in the event of an accident. Opponents point out that cycling rates go down when helmets are made compulsory, that accident rates increase when cyclist numbers decrease (essentially because more cyclists leads to better awareness among drivers as well as better socialised behaviour by cyclists themselves), and that significant health benefits to society are accordingly sacrificed when fewer people ride. At the end of the page there are some links you might want to follow, but let me warn you in advance that the topic is muddy, and that there is considerable vehemence on each side.

In any case, I was in Melbourne for a day to listen to Mikael Colville-Andersen, a Danish film-maker and photographer who runs an extremely popular cycling blog called Copenhagenize, and whom I interviewed recently for the User Experience podcast. He was in Melbourne as part of Victoria's "State of Design" festival.

It seemed like an ideal time to try the bike hire scheme. I'd first seen it on the day it opened, back in June, and indeed had a brief introductory spin, sans helmet, at that time. Since then the number of stations has been increased, and the central business district is liberally supplied with bike stations, as the map shows.

Being a bit geeky, I actually have a bicycle helmet in a locker in Melbourne, so I didn't have the problem of finding a helmet, nor of risking a fine for not wearing one. Ironically, my locker is at the RACV club. The RACV operates the scheme and, also perhaps ironically, is a motoring association (the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria), although it has advocated for cyclists and transport alternatives in recent years.

I spent a couple of minutes at each of two bike hire stations, and saw three groups of people approach, read some of the material, and leave specifically because of the helmet issue. The comments I overheard were "Where do you get the helmets?" and "Oh, you need to have helmets" (twice). Of course my small sample is not sufficient to estimate the extent of the problem, but to have seen clearly demonstrated instances of people being in effect actively turned away should be a great cause of concern for the scheme's success.

The actual process of hiring a bike is relatively straightforward, although one station rejected my credit card and then apparently crashed.

I was amused to see the terms and conditions screens (pictured). Anyone who has observed real people interact with online forms and websites (I've done so several hundred times in the course of my work) will know that nobody except people like me ever reads them. They're a great example of the triumph of fear and legal opinion over logic and common sense. As the picture shows, reading the terms and conditions would require the user to scroll through 72 screens - surely some sort of world record. While this is a minor point (since people can just skip them instead), it does perhaps indicate that the design has not been entirely free of political debate.

Once I'd paid my money and received a PIN to unlock a bike, I had some trouble recognising that the implied rectangles (1, 2, 3) on the bike docks were actually buttons. After a bit of flailing, I finally figured out that they were the only possibility. A few days later when going through my pocket detritus I noticed a little image on my printed receipt did show this, but painting button-like icons on the panels would make it easy to interpret without the need for instruction.

To the bikes themselves:

They are comfortable, and have an adjustable saddle. I did what many people probably would, choosing one that was  about the right  height, and didn't bother adjusting it.

They have three gears, using the now very common Shimano Nexus hub gears. The gearing is perfectly adequate for cycling around Melbourne. I went up and down several of the few minor hills that Melbourne city centre has to offer. First gear was perfectly adequate for going uphill, and third gear was fine for pedalling along comfortably, though not at great speed (and I never had the feeling of "Oh my God, I'm glad I'm wearing a helmet").

Being too much a cheapskate to go beyond the half-hour limit (after which a timed usage fee applies), I just rode around the city centre, including most of the main streets. I also cycled along the Yarra river through Southbank, and along parts of St Kilda Rd, before returning the bike.

During that time, I saw no other rider on a shared bikes, although there were plenty of people riding. The weather was cool and dry (it had rained earlier in the day) and pretty much ideal for riding. Several people commented on the bike. "There's one of the new bikes" was the general theme, and the bike was the topic of a few conversations when stopped at traffic lights.

I used the term "service design" in the title of this post because to me it's clear that the scheme provides a fine bike, but fails to complete the job and provide a service. In order to provide a service, there are really only two options:

  1. Agitate for mandatory helmet laws to be repealed, at least for the shared bikes, or
  2. Provide helmets.

Some links

On the morning of the same day that I tried the bikes, Mike Rubbo led a helmet-free ride to protest the need for helmets.

The Age, a Melbourne newspaper, has an article on the scheme and the helmet issue.

The Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation is an organisation set up to "to undertake, encourage, and spread the scientific study of the use of bicycle helmets". It's probably fair to say that its stance is anti-helmet, and it's not clear whether the site is actively maintained, but it has plenty of links.

The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute is the "helmet advocacy program of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association" and is strongly pro-helmet.

And finally, check out the inspirational little video that Mikael did for the City of Copenhagen.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Don't blame it on the sunshine (Blame it on the user)

I think overtly hostile error messages are less common than they used to be. Years ago I was closely involved in an application that included, to my embarrassment, the prompt "Incorrect" (even though the application was supposed to be for exploring people's preferences for categorisation).

But such messages are still out there. Here's one that says "You've entered something incorrectly, you stupid idiot". Actually, it doesn't say "you stupid idiot"; that's implied.

In the real world, there are probably more examples. There's a shop in Melbourne with a door that slides to open. A sign on the door says "Slide! It's not a freaking Rubik's Cube". (I'm not making that up.)

Finally, I came across this friendly little message at an airport. To paraphrase, it says "We have crappy tables and things fall off them. If that happens to you, then tough! Oh, and by the way, have a nice day."

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Celebrating the unnecessarily difficult

I have a nice collection of screen grabs, error messages and the like. Here are some that fall into the category of the unnecessarily difficult.

The party of the first part shall be known as...
I encountered this when filling in a registration form. The form asked (not unreasonably, I thought), for my first name and last name. This often causes designers angst because of the fact that either first name or last name may be the "family" name. There are various workarounds. But this one intrigued me because it actually had a message that if I was "not sure how to divide" my name into first and last, I could read a Help article about it.

And indeed there was a whole help article on the topic. I was a tad surprised, but when I saw that one of the names used to illustrate how to divide one's first and last name was Kurt Gödel, I realised that I had stumbled into a deep philosophical warp - a chronosynclastic infundibulum, perhaps.

Almost everything I need to know
When Telstra BigPond was my ADSL provider, they would occasionally send me a notification that I was approaching my monthly limit, but they never stated the date on which it would reset. I had a somewhat lengthy correspondence with them on the topic. I would suggest they improve their information, and they would send me an automated response that ignored my suggestion, and so on. Eventually we concluded on this note:

"...I was stating (and am restating for the third and final time) that
BigPond would improve its customer service if its email notifications
specified the relevant dates. If you'd like to pass on my suggestion
to someone who cares about improving customer service, please do so.
If not, please don't bother sending me any more vague communications
with links explaining how usage is calculated..."

Miracle of miracles, BigPond subsequently began to include the key information (reset date) in their notifications.

When I switched one of my mobile accounts to Telstra, I was reminded that there are organisations that learn, and organisations that don't. I received a usage notification that failed to specify  the reset date.

Messages can usually be improved by removing information. And indeed this one would benefit by the omission or simplification of the unnecessarily detailed usage limit, and by shortening the "Call Telstra..." sentence.

Less often, they can be improved by adding information. Here, the omission of one simple piece of information (the reset date) has converted what could have been useful and simple to something annoying and virtually useless (not to mention counter-productive).

Incidentally, the lack of this vital piece of information is a classic example of designing for the organisation's needs instead of those of the customer.

Much more than I need to know
This complicated table and associated text explains when the settlement date will be for trades done in a holiday period.

It took me a while to figure out what this table was trying to tell me, which was:

Trading date      Settlement date
Wed 30                     Tue 5
Thu 31                       Wed 6
Fri 1                            Thu 7
Mon 4                        Thu 7

The desire to provide a lot of information often subverts the need to communicate clearly. In most cases a simplified view is better - you can always include a link to more detailed information for the truly interested reader.

Check box? No, let's do things the hard way
My final example is just weird. Instead of using a check box, this site wanted me to actually type either "Yes" or "No". When I failed to do so, a dialog box reprimanded me.

I really don't know why a check box wasn't used in this instance. I do remember years ago having a discussion with a legal department that wanted to be "sure" that users had "really read" some terms and conditions, but for signing up to an Arts House program? Surely not.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Rude onerous forms

When I talk professionally about websites, I’m often asked for examples of good and bad design. I’m reluctant to provide examples of bad sites, primarily because it’s so easy to sit on the sidelines and snipe, without knowing the full circumstances and constraints of the design team.
In my personal life, however, I’m quite happy to whine, and I do so frequently when something irks me.
Recently Marcus’ teacher recommended to the kids that they get a magazine called "How your body works". Each week you get a different part of the body, and in the end (after thirty-something issues and a re-mortgage) you have a 1m tall skeleton with various organs and you’re ready to be a surgeon.
We bought the first issue at the newsagent. It included the lower half of the skull, with 32 teeth to be individually inserted. Marcus (and I) loved it, and the accompanying text was good, so we decided to take up the included subscription offer and order online.
That’s when things started to go awry, because the process of subscribing was painful.
Why? Where do I start…
Firstly, I had to register. That’s a pain, but I can understand the business rationale, even though it's funny that in the real world everyone is much happier to take your money. Even Amazon makes you register.
In order to register, I had to create a "login name". I already have a name, and I’m quite happy with it. I’ve had it for years. But now, apparently, I needed a new one (and it had to be a maximum of 10 characters). (Amazon doesn't force you to take a new name; I guess they're happy with a more casual relationship, and aren't insisting on marriage.) I also had to specify a security question. Why all this? Presumably because in my ongoing relationship with Bissett Magazine Services I would occasionally forget my user name and have to be reminded of it. Perhaps I'm being naïve, but I can't imagine that there are all that many customers who order lots and lots of things from Bissett Magazine Services.
When specifying the "deliver to" details (and bear in mind I was ordering for a child), I had to specify date of birth and gender. Why Bissett Magazine Services consider themselves to be entitled to not only ask for this information, but make it mandatory, is beyond me.
Thankfully Marcus, despite his tender years, is an aspiring privacy activist, so he instructed me to falsify his date of birth and gender.
(Guideline 1 for online empowerment: When forced to answer inappropriate questions, always lie).
At the bottom of the form, there were no fewer than 6 checkboxes. I always feel it’s antisocial to default to the option that disadvantages the customer, particularly if you bury the key information so deeply in the accompanying text that the customer has to put effort into decoding it.
In any case, having waded through this unnecessarily intrusive form, I clicked "Confirm".
The next page told me that my chosen user name (the entity formerly known as "login name") was "…not available. Please try a new login and password". That was bad, but what was much worse was that my new paramour had thrown out most of the information I’d already provided. (What was your name again?)
This is incredibly rude. It’s the sort of behaviour you might expect from a vengeful bureaucrat in a centrally planned economy. Making people do extra work because you’ve been too lazy or incompetent to do a decent design job is unacceptable.
At this stage I would normally shoot off an angry email to the organisation in question and forget about it. However, Marcus was at my side with his education at risk, so I went back and tried again.
And again was rejected.
You can see in the image the user name I finally used.
I would bet good money that Bissett Magazine Services has a database full of user names like this. I’d also bet good money that lots of people lie about their date of birth and gender, so their database is at least partially corrupt.
I’d also bet good money that many people quit in frustration because of the unnecessarily difficult process they’re forced to go through.
The magazine better be damn good.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Riding a Gazelle city bike

My father taught me how to ride on my mother’s bicycle, an old black ladies’ bike, probably a Raleigh.
Not the bicycle of an old black lady. The bicycle was old and black.
Soon I had a bike of my own, racing style, with narrow tires and drop handlebars. Years later I switched to a mountain bike when they became popular, and later a so-called flat-bar road bike.

A bike was always, for me, a utilitarian possession. I’ve probably owned around a dozen, but rarely more than one at a time. As a kid, I rode to school, and explored the surrounding countryside. As a young adult, I commuted and got to know Dublin and, to some extent, London.

When I moved to Melbourne, the bike helped me learn the new city, and provided a pleasant way to enjoy the beachfront. Weekend rides around country Victoria were fun.
And without necessarily realizing that I was doing so, I accepted poor design decisions made on my behalf by people who did not understand my needs. I bought bicycles that were uncomfortable. I spent money on things like lights, locks, racks and mudguards, all of which, mysteriously, were not supplied as standard.

And all the while, I rode in a hunched position. Bike shop personnel would sometimes tell me that I could buy an extension to raise the handlebars, but it was clear they didn’t think that was a good idea. After all, if we were meant to ride in comfort, God would have given us longer arms.
I gradually became aware that the old black bicycle had not actually disappeared. That is, it had not disappeared in countries where people used their bikes as general-purpose transport. In Europe and in Asia, there were many countries where people sat upright on “old-style” bicycles. These are often referred to as “city bikes”.

Eventually, I started to look for such a bike. Staff in most bicycle shops in Melbourne appeared to be unaware that they even existed. Or they would warn me that such bikes were heavy, poorly geared, expensive, and unsuited to Melbourne conditions.

On the net, sites like Copenhagenize suggested that there were indeed such bikes, and that they represented a thriving and growing market. Eventually I decided to go actively looking.
(As an aside, if you are thinking of buying a city bike, I would suggest that you avoid any bike shop where the staff are unaware of what you’re talking about, or where they try to persuade you that such bikes are unsuited for local conditions. A good warning sign is any indication that staff eat energy bars and do triathlons.)

I found someone selling Danish Velorbis bikes, and rode a couple of them, and was impressed. Following a reference to Dutch Gazelle bikes, I found the website of Commuter Cycles in Melbourne, and one day on my way back from the airport had my driver drop me there. There, the ever-friendly and helpful Huw showed me a Gazelle, and suggested I take it for a spin. He didn’t bother with asking me for ID or a deposit, just gave me a beautiful bike and sent me out in the street. (He did neglect to mention it was a one-way street, but a friendly driver pointed this out.)

While I rode around the block, I was transported back to my earliest experience of the bicycle as freedom machine. The upright stance widened my field of vision so that I was a child again, with the city spread out around me, and the world at my feet.

I mulled a purchase for a while. I was somewhat concerned about the relatively small number of gears, and about suggestions from “real” bike shops that commuter bikes were not for “real” cyclists, and with the fact that my Scott bike was only a year old (and that I was quite happy with it).
Eventually (and after some helpful advice from Paul at Gazelle Australia) I bought a Gazelle Aristo from Huw. By the time I’d ridden the 10km home, I was very happy with my purchase. Six months and two cities later, I’m still happy.

I was trying to explain the user experience to Gina, and the best (poor) analogy I could think of was to say: Imagine that you had an iPhone once, but then for some unspecified reason switched to lesser phones for 20 years, and that one day you picked up an iPhone again, but in 20 years it had been improved so that it now not only had the characteristics you originally liked, but was vastly improved by various enhancements during the intervening period.

The Gazelle I bought has 8 gears (my Scott bike had 21. Or was it 24?) For the technically minded, it’s a Shimano nexus hub. It has mudguards as standard (on my Scott bike, the bike shop used cable-ties (something that always bothered me) to fit mudguards as an “optional extra”. It has a rack as standard (optional extra on the Scott). The bell is built in to the left handlebar, so you can ring it without moving your hand (optional extra on Scott). It has automatic lights (lights of any sort were an optional extra on the Scott). It has a chain guard and coat guard, so that you don’t have to do something really dorky with your trouser legs.

It also has a built-in lock. If you are old enough, you may remember when bikes that had these locks as standard – they would stop the rear wheel from moving. The Gazelle is a fairly high-tech version, with an (optional!) chain that integrates with the lock. The built-in lock is great – I generally park right at the door of wherever I want to be, and only use the chain if I’m in a neighbourhood where the bike might be a target for thievery.

When we moved to Sydney, some people warned me that it was not suited to city bikes (the existence of hills was the main reason given). However, I’ve had no problems, although I use the lowest gear from time to time (I’d never used it in Melbourne). For example, there’s a hill on the way home from Bondi Beach that I would walk up were it not for my pride.

Is it slower than a road bike? Yes, somewhat, and on three counts. Firstly, the upright stance is not designed for “putting your back into it”. Secondly, the highest gear is somewhat lower than you would typically have  on a road bike (although I can still comfortably do 25km/h or so). Thirdly, and most importantly, the thing is so damn comfortable that it makes you want to cruise around, and is so well balanced that travelling slowly is easy.
I’ve found myself frequently taking the long way for the sheer pleasure of the ride, and the thought of driving to the shops is anathema if I can ride instead.

An unexpected side-effect of the upright riding style is that it seems to make for a better relationship with motorists. I’m quite willing to accept that this may be a personal bias, but I’ve found that sitting upright results in more eye contact with drivers. So even in Sydney, where cycling is relatively poorly supported (though improving), I’ve found drivers to be courteous. I know that many Sydneysiders would disagree with me.

The Gazelle is not the only “European style” bike available. There is a growing range here in Australia, and, I believe, worldwide.

A few months ago, in Melbourne, I parked my car next to a young lady who was about to cycle away. I noticed she had a Kronan, a Swedish city bike. When I asked her what she thought of it, she said “It makes me happy every day”. I could say the same about the Gazelle.

What a perfect accolade.

Note: If you're interested in this review, you might also want to read my later comments on the Velorbis Churchill Balloon.

Friday, April 16, 2010


Being right-handed, I'd seldom considered the problems faced by left-handed people, except in a purely intellectual sense.

Young Marcus is very strongly left-handed, so I now have a more personal connection - particularly when I see him execute an awkward manoeuvre (opening a door that favours right-handed people, for example).

I got some first-hand experience recently when I had to use the ironing-board shown in the photograph (in the upstairs change room at the RACV Club in Melbourne). I hope it was installed by a left-handed person seeking revenge on society. I can tell you that it's extremely awkward for a right-handed person to use, as its location pretty much precludes using your right hand to iron. Standing on the "wrong" side of an ironing board is a strangely unsettling experience. Shane Morris would undoubtedly use the term "cognitive dissonance" to describe it.

Incidentally, there's a very nice Australian term for a left-handed person - a mollydooker (unfortunately seldom used). In Irish, a left-handed person is a ciotóg (pronounced kithogue). I'm not aware of any specific words for right-handed people. Barack Obama, incidentally. Marcus seems to identify with lefties in general; it's one of the reasons he likes Rafael Nadal.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Inadvertent tweeting (on being stalked by supermarkets)

In March 2010, I received an email thanking me for shopping at the Woolworths Bondi supermarket (in Sydney), and asking me to complete a short survey to "rate [my] shopping experience". I was slightly taken aback, although perhaps I should not have been. I did complete the survey, and when asked how likely I would be to recommend the store in future to colleagues and friends I chose "extremely unlikely" (as they probably wouldn't want to be stalked).

I tweeted about this, and posted a photo on flickr, and a few people agreed that it was a somewhat freaky experience. I then more or less forgot about it, until yesterday, when I received another identical invitation.

I recognise that participation in most "rewards" or "awards" programs implies a degree of disclosure. However, I'm not entirely comfortable with my shopping being so actively tracked.

I'm also unaware of the extent of that tracking. For example, does Woolworths have an inventory of the actual items I purchased? If so, to what use will that information be put?

Occasionally I hear clients OK certain actions because they were "disclosed" in the terms and conditions. However, in many years of active observation of users interacting with paper and online versions of various "Ts and Cs" (as they're often called), I have yet to see someone read them. Most people blithely scan them and click the "Accept" button. To pretend that information buried in such documents has been "disclosed" is quite simply that - a pretence.

The Terms & Conditions, incidentally, contain over 4200 words - I've included a screen grab of it at the bottom of this post (if you're really fascinated by all this, you can read the full text).

I wondered what was in the Woolworths Ts and Cs. I couldn't actually find where I'd agreed to be tracked and polled. However, I did find the following statement:

"We will only use your personal information to operate and to provide you with the membership benefits of the Everyday Rewards Program (including our member newsletter), and the Qantas Frequent Flyer program (if applicable), and to bring you Other Benefits from the Woolworths Group."

My definition of a "benefit", even an "Other Benefit", is apparently somewhat at odds with the Woolworths definition.