Friday Jul 17, 2009

Finding Servers

Hot, well, warm on the heels of our storage finder, we have recently deployed the new server finder, which replaced a previous incantation of finding functionality which was held together by hello world string and was somewhat creaking at the edges. The new server finder is based on the architecture we developed for the storage finder - they are, in fact, 2 renditions of the same finding platform - and so leverages the features that make it so worth the investment of effort.

As with the storage deployment, the key to making the server finder successful was, well, a number of things, but the main thrust of our efforts was defining the data architecture that make the relationships between product groups, products and product attributes a meaningful one. This can only happen with some Herculean efforts being undertaken by our publishing teams in conjunction with the product marketing teams, who really understand what is important and relevant about the products they market. Really, the finder itself is just a layer of abstraction on top of the data set underneath, and in theory (as we are at pains to try and progress), can be applied to any well-structured data set. What matters, is whether the data that a customer, user, or casual visitor is presented with, and the methods they can use to interrogate that data, enables them to reach an appropriate destination. In other words, they might know where they want to go, they might have a vague idea, or they may have no idea at all, but if we've done our job as well as we should be doing it, the directed searches and filters that the finding platform utilizes should provide a the equivalent of a product sat-nav, but avoid the 18-wheelers that get grounded on hump-back bridges in the middle of Hertfordshire on the way to the new Tesco Express.

Probably an analogy too far there, but it is by way of illustrating that the key to the finding platform is the data that it manipulates. I mean, we did a number of detailed usability trails, with various rapid and high-fidelity prototypes, struggled over the tiniest nuances of labels and gradients, fought compromise on page region refreshes and a followed number of other noteworthy user experience best practices, but in the end, if we built our application infrastructure on top of a taxonomy akin to a river bed full of shopping trolleys, we'd only be providing half a solution, which, in fact, is no solution at all.

We've still got a number of things to work on that didn't make it into the first release, such as enabling product comparisons across products and, more difficult, across product in different product families, but take a look for yourself and let us know what you think. Comments are more than welcome, especially ones that are nice.

Monday May 04, 2009

Awevangelizing

When you've got something you really want to say, but really want to say well, what is your best method for getting that message across, so that it plants a wow seed in the minds of your audience? You know, the corporate presentation equivalent of freshly baked bread and an ergonomically sourced spiral staircase centerpiece when you have house viewings? Recently, the web experience team here at Sun have had a couple of great opportunities to spread our message about the web experience lifecycle, our role in how we enable partners and stakeholders to maximize their potential on the web and, well, more importantly, how great we are. These opportunities were manifest as review meetings with executive management (there's a few of those going on), and, maybe more exciting, the chance to spread the web experience message to a larger group of design specialists.

Once you've established that in the 2 days you have to create this meisterwerk you won't be a) compiling a National Geographic style video documentary including over-the-shoulder footage of senior designers bevelling a fish and marble-backed talking heads reminiscing wistfully about Network Computing launches, or b) be building 'presoworld' in the Sun Microsystems Second Life hub where your SVP will have to negotiate the training course just to learn how to fly to your portal where they'll have to find a place next some anatomically altered engineer masquerading as Wolverine in an OpenSolaris free virtual tshirt who clacks their fingers over an imaginary keyboard throughout the entire session, or c) in person, then what you're most likely left with is filling that vital 25-minute timeslot with a presentation. I mean, not even a web-based presentation, but one that you put together with slides, templates, stickmen, graphs and everything.

Of course, traditional slideware is anathema to most self-respecting web experience design professionals, but, since I have a rather low self-respect threshold, and 1.5 days left, I though it might actually be a nice way to get our message across. More importantly, the presentation was required to be 'taken away', meaning it would, by design, need to be easily located in a laptop file system and spewed onto a white screen or even just viewed on-screen on the back seat of a taxi to Redwood City. With these core requirements in mind, it was painfully clear that however I created it, it would end up as a PDF, and so it was just a question of what applications and tools in the slideware creation cycle I picked from to build the thing out, knowing that, since I'm as manically possessive as any designer, I need to have TOTAL CONTROL OVER ALL THE BITS. In the end, it doesn't really matter what I used (InDesign) or what other tools helped me out (Photoshop, Illustrator, FastStone Capture), because having settled on the nuts and bolts, it was all about the bread and butter. Thankfully, it wasn't a solo effort to actually create the content - the web experience design team is crammed with wonderfully skilled and articulate individuals who can deliver that stuff - but there was a certain slackening of the reigns in terms of consolidation of content, arrangement and style, which is obviously the bit which appealed most. And the style I chose was awevangelization.

Awevangelization - Which I would patent, if I had any clue as to how that happens - is "the method of communicating one's value in such as way as to avoid any ambiguity in that message through the tactical deployment of stuff which looks so awesome that it must be true". As designers, we're constantly, subconsciously striving to deliver projects that awevangelize, in that the frameworks that support the message render it unequivocal. There is, of course, a sliding awevangelical scale, depending on the strategic approach for the campaign or message. Viral is not awevangelism in its purest form, but it applies to execution, in so much that if you are required to understand a fake to be real, then it must be an awesome fake. Similarly, you might choose to derive design impact from actually sliding off the scale altogether so that you, apparently, have no impact at all. But other designers know that really, you've just done a modulo on the awezangelization scale and actually, you're super-anti-awesome, which is, of course, awesome.

In the end, for the presentation. I just made the background black and did that mirror reflection thing with screenshots, but everybody is so busy these days that they don't even have time to do that, so it seemed to rate fairly high on the awevangelical audience feedback metrics. Which made me happy for a while. Until I remembered I'd forgotten to submit a project brief for sidebar ordering to encapsulate requirements for content attachments to document types for sun.com in our publishing system. That wasn't quite so, well, awesome.

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Listening Post: Aphex Twin: Flaphead

Friday Apr 03, 2009

Articulating Prudence

You know that nagging feeling you have in the back of your mind that you feel you haven't quite explained to those you care for that the internet is, in fact, a omnipresent blood-sucking privacy leech that never forgets? I mean, you might have those conversations where you say 'and never, never give anyone your own email address', or 'if you don't know who its from, don't open it', or even 'is that you?', but sometimes its difficult to explain, with real-life examples, why posting a picture of yourself with your head down the toilet is, like, OMG, a really stupid thing to do if you ever want to grow up into a real person with a job and everything. I know the temptation to tell the world just how drunk you can get is overwhelming, but really, that, as an example, is exactly the kind of thing that gets stuck on the fly-paper of social networking, forever.

So I'm glad to be able to point people in the direction of an article (on the internet, naturally), that more eloquently describes the perils of posting, but, crucially, sets it in the context of how the major social networking sites actually manage your data, and, based on the terms and conditions you implicitly sign-up for, the data is no longer actually yours. Of course, the article is describing exactly how Sun is enabling some of the most humungous networks to massively scale and deliver blistering performance, notably, the mother of all cringe archives, but while we're delivering the technology that drives the networks that you, I, and half the world seem to engage with on a daily basis, we're also acutely aware of our responsibilities. There. I said it. And if I sound like a pompous Dad for saying it, then I don't mind, because this stuff really is important.

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Listening Post: Tubeway Army: Down in the Park

Monday Mar 23, 2009

use it, or not

Hang on, is this still active? Oh dear.

It occurred to me while reading Paul Boag's 10 things a web designer would never tell you, that there are a number of things I've never told you. They were mainly the things in his list, but accompanied by a cultural caveat that stated I'm English, specifically, from dead-pan capital of the east, Norwich, so anything I might write down here that might apparently be totally, like, lame, I've actually written post-modern ironically, which means that any statement of fact that I make that you consider simply ridiculous, is, in fact, a joke. Its just that I deliver it straight. Which is difficult enough when I deliver it face-to-face, but when it's rendered in a <div>, then it often goes horribly wrong.

Suffice to say that on reading Paul's list, I'm particularly struck by number 3. Not because I necessarily subscribe to the argument that user testing is an expensive conspiracy prolapsed by some clandestine web design coven in order to prolong delivery (you see how straight I'm delivering that), but because I really dislike useit.com. Of course its probably the most well-respected usability site of all and has mucho gravitas amongst the online design community (he even knows where my eyes are looking. right now!), but, oh, I just can't look at it. Its not so much that there is just so much valuable, rich, meaningful content there on that home page that it makes me hyperventilate at the thought of actually having to read some of it, or even the fact that when I do get to read it, I'm mildly troubled by it being more statement of fact than informed conjecture. Its worse than that. I don't like yellow. And that high frequency colour spectrum opposite polarity yellow-blue split-screen thing makes my eyes go all stereogrammatical and gives me a headache. Oh, and there's no pictures. That alone makes my healing brush finger twitch. Am I wrong?

That is, of course, just something that affects me. I think. Thankfully, the team that delivers the sun.com experience is a very broad church and amongst us walk many much more professional and qualified experts who actually understand, subscribe to, and put into practice the very things that he who shall be called Jakob Nielsen imparts. That's one of the reasons why sun.com conistently ranks so highly in independent usability evaluations (from folks such as SiteIQ) - because we engage early with stakeholders, customers and our extended communites to get that critical knowledge that keeps us informed. We also continue those relationships with ongoing studies, surveys and evaluations, so that we don't get complacent. Its easy to evaluate usability on a specific project while you're in the design and build phase, and then just forget all about it once you move to deploy and maintain. You've already tested it right? You don't need to test it again after it goes live, surely? We're guilty of that on sun.com, and its one of the things we're trying to focus on right now. So if we ask you for feedback, or drop you the occasional survey when you're visiting sun.com, we'd be delighted if you'd spare the time to let us know what we're doing right or wrong. It doesn't take long, and hopefully it will help us to help you.

That last bit wasn't a joke, by the way.

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Listening Post: Ladyhawke: My Delirium

Wednesday Dec 31, 2008

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ihavea Player

Following the rampant success of the BBC iPlayer, ITV has done what it does best, and nicked it. Ok, so the implementation is different, as are the system requirements, oh, and the reach, ah, and the general niceness of it, but it's is pretty much the same thingy that allows you to catch up (their call to action) on the fabulous ITV franchise programmes you may have inadvertently decided you didn't want to watch in the first place.

What I like most of all about this little gem of interactivity, however, is the name. Inoffensive, to the point, and generally following the trend of at least 3 years ago to start everything with an 'i'. Except this little 'i' isn't the mactard freeform freeload bangwagonesque all-seeing 'i', it's the BBCi. The BBCi brand, label, bucket, whatever, was around for many years as a catch-all bitriquadquin-media expression of anything vaguely digital. Stands to reason that when they finally delivered their TV-ondemandonlineovertheweb player that it would fall under that broad BBCi category of products, even though they don't really call it that anymore. So, why not just stick the 'i' at the front? Viola!. iPlayer. Nothing to do with fruit. So when ITV finally scraped enough funds together to bake a TV-ondemand cake, it's no wonder they want to leverage a bit of the success that the BBC iPlayer enjoys. So let's maybe start it with an 'i'. But wait. We're ITV. We start with an 'i' anyway. Hang on, itvPlayer! Bingo!

Not to suggest that it's a little like cybersquatting a domain typo, but the similarities are striking. Take a little look at the branding around ITV Player and the BBC iPlayer and you get the picture. Even down to the little pointy triangle video play device in the logo. 'But everybody uses that'. Oh, ok. Of course, the presentation and user experience for each product are the usual worlds apart, but when it comes down to it, the products are pretty much the same online. What used to be the crucial advantage of what used to be called not the itvPlayer but something else entirely was that you could watch ITV programmes near-live, which I spouted some eulogy about a while back. That was clearly a huge competitive edge, like a virtual sabatier to the heart of copyrighted 7-day backlog of the BBC. Not any more though. I mean, you can't just watch anything live. And they make you work hard to find it. In fact, all I can watch right now is a live repeat of the UK pre-buget report statement on BBC parliament, but, they do now do live TV online. You still need to pony up for your TV license to actually legally watch it, but I tell you, to get the Scottish Parliament from the 26 November on a programme originally broadcast on 21st December live on my desktop via a repeat on the BBC Parliament channel on 31st December is some thrill indeed. Better than fireworks.

Happy new year.

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Listening Post: M83: Graveyard Girl

Tuesday Dec 23, 2008

Finding Storage

Sounds like it should be a film with Tom Hanks and an emotionally challenged Tupperware box. It is, in fact, the long-awaited solution to one of our common web problems. Whether you call it filtered searching, directed searching, product finding, trans-navigational learning aid cognitive process map hierarchical cross-sell or something, it's about trying to find the right product for your business. And we've just launched it on sun.com.

The new storage finder is built from the ground up with the intention of enabling customers to find the right products for them, based on their unique requirements. We've tried this before, you may have noticed, with mixed results. One of the problems we've previously encountered is trying to architect a finding solution that's based on the interaction model alone, rather than really understanding what is important to our customers and how those key criteria drive the user experience. To avoid repeating those mistakes, for the new storage finder, we took a significant step backwards, to understand the product taxonomy and how it maps to business needs and customer expectations. When reviewing the product data, and testing with business groups and customers, it was clear that what seems like an important attribute of a product or product family is not necessarily what matters to the people who are actually wanting to buy it. Seems obvious, but until you get real people to give you real opinions, then you're just guessing.

After investing such much effort in evaluating the product data and determining what really turns folk on about storage (it does happen), we were in a much better position to look at the interaction model and the representation of the data on sun.com. I mean, we already knew that driving customers down a one-way street with road signs that only the product marketing team can read is a pretty hopeless exercise, but there was still a lot of decision making and testing to be done around the entry points to the customer journey, the complexity of the options (parabolic vs. optional), and the level of detail required to enable a decision to be made. Oh, and whether the Ajax thing would work.

I won't bore you with the iterations of prototypes, usability testing, data refining, back-end systems, publishing frameworks and specifications that need to collide gracefully in order to get a project like this out of the door, but, suffice to say, a number of dedicated, hard-working folks from across Sun managed to pull this one out of the bag just in time for Christmas, so enjoy. There's still a shopping day left, by the way...

We've a list of enhancements and future work that we're already planning, but let us know what you think so that we can involve you in the ongoing development of our finding capability on sun.com

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Listening Post: Dananananaykroyd: Pink Sabbath

Thursday Jun 12, 2008

Faces to Voices

Its been a long time since I've been out to Colorado to get together with the rest of the web experience design team, so its a great pleasure to be attending our all-hands event this week. There's a number of faces I've been able to put to voices and tweets and IMs, including Holly and Matt, who have fairly recently joined the team. We're employing some damn fine looking people these days, I have to tell you. We're almost as good-looking as our pages.

There's also a couple of other folks here right now that I managed to meet up with for the first time, and the week's not over yet, so there's still time to find and surprise more unwitting co-workers with how old I look in real life. In fact, as I was, like, totally lame when Teresa was in the UK a few months ago and didn't drive 3 hours to meet up with her then, she pretty much dragged me out of the hotel yesterday when, coincidentally, I was trying to finish a design specification for Unified Web Feedback.

There are so many Sun people working from home these days that we often need a really good reason to actually drag ourselves out, knuckles scraping on the floor, to meet up with the people we probably would have sat next to in the office every day a few years ago. Which is why investing the time, effort (and dollars) in getting a team like ours together is so valuable. We're spending these days reviewing the past year, looking at priorities for the next, working on our process and documentation and generally spreading the web love around. By the end of the week we'll probably all be twitching and avoiding eye contact, but until that happens, there's nothing quite like a good old get-together. With lots of Macbooks, naturally.

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Listening Post: Pulp: Babies

Tuesday May 20, 2008

Got Server Content?

You do? Where shall we put that then? No, I mean where shall we put it so people can actually see it?

There's a ton of great stuff out there about Sun products, and it changes all the time. The trouble is, on sun.com, we sometimes don't keep up with all the new and updated content out there. This is because we've often not really had a good place to surface it on our traditional product landing pages. Think servers, or storage, or software. Those product areas have their own discrete content areas on sun.com, where you might expect a reasonable refresh rate. In particular, the Overview pages in those product areas - the pages you hit at /servers, /storage, /software - should probably be the stickiest pages we can build, with constantly refreshed content. It's always nice to see new content when you go back to a page. It gives the impression it might actually be current.

Up until very recently, the servers landing page on sun.com wasn't really a landing page at all. You just landed quite unceremoniously at a server finder, where you were kind of expected to fend for yourself. Fine, of course, if you know what you're looking for, or if you have some sense of the kind of product attributes that make up the ideal server for your particular business needs. Not so great if you don't even know what a server is, or does. Or maybe you just want to know how Sun servers can help you, before you actually have to start choosing one. All the kind of stuff we loosely describe as content 'which tells the product story'. You know, delivering key messages, addressing market sectors, providing system solutions, all that kind of stuff.

A few weeks ago, we put together a servers overview page, so that we could do that story telling, provide sensible paths into product areas, uplevel featured products, show off some great customer success stories, and, yes, tell you what our servers actually are. It's a delicate balance on these pages between getting the story out there and providing a quick route to the products, but I think we managed it pretty well. I say 'we', but, of course, it was the good folks in the product marketing teams that pulled all the content together (kudos Carlos & Lisa), and our publishing team that managed the tricky icky problem of integrating the new content with the existing server finder (heroics from Jing). I just did the bit where I say 'you'd be better of with a PC00 component there'.

While we were working that project, there was another altogether more dynamic project going on in the design room next door (there's not a really a design room next door to me, but you know what I mean). A few months ago, the systems group here at Sun, that looks after the server product line, had an idea that they wanted to explore. It was really about addressing the problem I mentioned at the start - there's great, current content out there, that has marketing dollars behind it, and a plan to develop it, but not a really great place to showcase it. Based on the kind of presentation we use for the product launch events on sun.com, they wanted to see what we could do to support their idea of 'content channels'. A little bit launch, a little bit back story, a little bit promotion, a whole lot more interesting than a big top banner.

The result is what you now see on the top of the new servers overview page. A rather nice mix of videos, podcasts, product tours, white papers and other supercool server stories (those product tours are very nice. I took the PSU out of a Sun Fire X4140 just now). So now, when you come back to the servers section on sun.com, you can expect regular updates, announcements, product walkthroughs and all that jazz - all hand-picked by your server channel content owners. If you can't hear it, that's the sound of a gauntlet dropping to the floor of Menlo Park, by the way...

If its not immediately apparent, this is a product category landing page without right-hand navigation. Well, I'm excited.

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Listening Post: Psychedelic Furs: All Of This and Nothing

Friday May 16, 2008

itv.com

Watching TV on a computer is a bit like playing World of Warcraft on a phone - you probably can, but it's a bit rubbish. There are some rather nice players out there right now, like the BBC iPlayer, but the main reservation I have is that I'm as likely to watch programmes, that have already been aired, via my computer in my office as I am to watch them via my hard disk recorder in the living room. Which is not very likely. Once a programme has gone, it's pretty much gone, and I never seem to to find the time to go back and 'watch again'. Unless it's a Robyn Hitchcock documentary on BBC 4. I can always find time for one of those.

I've often listened to my friend John Murray commentating on a mid-week champions league match on Radio 5 via Real Player from the BBC site, as I'm supposed to be on a conference call about widgets or something, and that works pretty well. They sometimes even sync up graphic scoreboards to give you something to look at while you're listening, but really, its still not like watching football on TV. I could probably find last Saturday's Match of the Day and watch it again on Wednesday, but it's not like watching it at the time and it's not live football anyway.

So all hail ITV. Even though they have a reasonable offering in the way of recently aired items to pick and choose from and watch again, what really makes itv.com worth going to is the fact that I can watch ITV channels there. Live. Well, a few seconds delay, but it's a live stream of the 4 ITV channels, not a stored, cut, archived and expired (usually) version of the ITV output. This is hugely significant, as it means that should, for instance, a UEFA Cup final happen to clash with a conference call about prototypes, then I am now able to have the full moving pictures of the game, as it happens, next to an InDesign document of web design components, while pretending to know what I'm talking about on the phone. I wouldn't actually do that, of course, I'd be 100% committed to the conference call, but let's just say that's a plausible scenario. I did try an experiment with the itv.com pictures streaming and John commentating via bbc.co.uk, to see how they might sync up. It took a few minutes to work out who was lagging, and to my surprise, the Radio 5 audio stream is about 2 and a half minutes behind the ITV1 video stream, but even that was better than listening to Clive Tyldesley (that doesn't translate well, but I expect Dave will understand).

Of course, the whole thing is pretty much 'undefined' as an experience if you're using Firefox, as the player requires Silverlight, but frankly, there are times when I'll just use Internet Explorer and be done with it.

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Listening Post: The Roots: The Return to Innocence Lost

Wednesday May 14, 2008

Sharing Your Opinion

I just had a call with Ben, Mr Usability, regarding some work we need to collaborate on as part of our web feedback program. We've been looking into the user experience across our feedback systems on various venues and trying to simplify and standardize a number of the interactions. This effort has been really quite specific in focus for sun.com, based on the nature of how we gather feedback there through our contact forms, but we really do a whole lot more than just ask you to point out broken links and typos.

You may have noticed that we've rolled out the 'floating math' feedback widget across sun.com. In fact, the widget, in various formats, is rolled out across a wide range of Sun web venues and is gathering mightily useful data from those sites. Well, aside from the comments about how we suck particular parts of primates anatomy, of course, but, in general, specific, constructive and informative.

The whole thing is powered by lovely people at OpinionLab, and I was lucky enough to have Ben walk me through the administration interface to give me a better understanding of the capabilities of their templated comment card system and the deployment of widgets and embedded components. There was a time when we would take a look at a system like this, kind of like it, and then build our own. On Solaris. Using vi. Thankfully, we're much more ready these days to let folks who really know what they're doing provide these services (yes, I know we have to pay), and work out how they interconnect and communicate with our own systems. In the case of OpinionLab, is seems this is an exercise that they are more than happy to work with us on to get right, which is good, because now they'll have to work with me to try and get it right, which is a user experience I can't possibly comment on.

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Listening Post: Bloc Party: Atonement

Thursday May 01, 2008

We Sell Servers

You know that, of course, but how do you buy our servers? For as long as I can remember, and in line with how we structure our organization, we've presented our product lines on the web by the product categories by which we refer to them. This means that if you're looking for our servers on sun.com, we think you might want to look for them by their parent category. Right now, we'd be in a great position to answer customer questions like "What CoolThreads servers have you got?", or "Show me all your blades", but, really, is that the kind of question you have in your head when you come to sun.com to look at servers?

Maybe you'd actually prefer to see our servers presented in terms of their attributes, so that you can begin your research by asking "What servers have you got that can run Linux?", or maybe "I've got $5000 and I want a Sun server now. Show me what you've got". In any case, you'd be hard pressed right now to complete a customer journey like that without going through a number of hoops. Backwards, probably.

So, at the moment, we're looking at what's important to our customers in terms of the way that they look for our products and how they might expect to see them grouped, or otherwise, so that a subset of products is a meaningful subset of products, that can support directed searching, categorization and a much more targeted presentation model. I mean, do you really need to know everything about why our products are so great when you've already come to sun.com to find the products? Is that product category landing page just telling you a bit more than you need to know, when all you really want to do is find the products? Perhaps, in actual fact, you don't know what you're looking for and you do need help in understanding just what Sun servers there are and how they are differentiated from the competition. Either way, we want to try and support those interactions as efficiently as possible and, from a user experience perspective, make it a pleasure to be engaging with us.

We have great people in the team conducting user evaluations and interviews and gathering as much data as we can in order to direct our designs, but, you know, you might have something to say about your experiences on sun.com and what you really want to be able to do when you're researching our products. If you do, let me know, and we'll feed it directly into the design process. If you don't want to comment here, you can always email - my name is Tim Caynes and I work at sun.com, so the address isn't difficult to fathom.

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Listening Post: Future Radio Online

Wednesday Apr 30, 2008

Second Life Emptiness

I had made a mental, not physical, note to myself to attend the online knees-up that was yesterday's Sun employee event in Second Life. Of course, I was extraordinarily busy doing web prototype updates and determining the length of various pieces of data string yesterday, so I forgot all about it. In any case, being in the UK timezone meant that by the time Jonathan was speaking, I was already driving to a grotty venue down by the river to see a band nobody likes, and when Liz Matthews was taking to the stage I was probably lying in a pool of beer surrounded by students half my age screeching for an encore.

The fact that I missed it, however, and that various people have since recounted the experience, made me want to revisit Second Life and reconnect with the possibilities for syncing up some of our web experiences with the whole other-worldliness of planet Linden. I first signed into Second Life well over a year ago and we had a few meetings in there and talked about marketing opportunities, building experiences, what the engagement model was and all those kind of ethereal things that a new environment makes you think about. Lou was particularly visionary, of course, and was able to articulate just the kind of opportunities that Second Life could offer and how we might weave it seamlessly into our key customer journeys. Most of us, however, were just trying to pass the 'you can now fly' exam and wondering where you could buy those enormous body parts from.

Sun does have a rather lovely presence in Second Life these days and people like Fiona and Christy have obviously done an enormous amount to raise awareness, as the success of the events demonstrate, but there's still that disconnect between how we're engaging customers on the old rickety web and how we're able to interact directly in Second Life. It was designed that way, of course, so what do I expect, but I'd like to do more than just copy-and-paste a slurl for an event. Perhaps there's some neat Second Life Grid API in the pipeline that supports web-based collaboration via the platform or something, or maybe we'll start pricing our products online in Linden dollars. However it manifests itself, it would hopefully be more than just jumping from one world to the other, either by a web-based slurl, or a SL-based web browser. That's just like wearing your anorak inside out and calling it a new coat.

Anyway, to my reason for going to Second Life today, I thought I might do some of that social interaction thing and pretend to be someone worth chatting to and maybe catch the fallout of the employee event somehow. How wrong I was. I mean, I might not expect to see it thronging with hordes of flying groupies around the Sun Pavillion at lunchtime in the UK (2am Pacific), but there's always a Java developer from Belgium or something, looking at the free Sun jackets, surely. Not today. No green dots. Just me.

I hung around for a while, taking screenshots of myself, like I was on holiday, and decided to take a sneak look at Club Java, just to make sure there's were no swingers hanging around that had missed the last virtual bus home. There wasn't, so really, there was nothing else to do...

I think that's called the 'dad at a wedding' animation, or, in my case, F12.

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Listening Post: The Mars Volta: The Bedlam In Goliath

Wednesday Apr 23, 2008

Bring Me A Taxonomy

Praise be for the sight of our erstwhile ├╝ber data architect, pontificating on the nature of content engineering strategies and all things modelled. It's been far too long since Kristen has regailed us with those neatly crafted unified product model things that she does, but I guess that's what happens when they make you a director. You have to do all that director stuff instead. Thank goodness I'm at least 3 steps removed from that particular career move then, right?

In the web experience design team, we have a number of ongoing projects that really are all about how the data we're using is architected (which is not a real word, surely), in order that they have any chance of success. In reference to Kristen's latest entry, this is mostly to do with how we define the data sets for products, such that we are able to build efficient, manageable content management capabilities while also being able to easily organize the information across multiple venues and in multiple formats. But it's also about understanding the key attributes of our products that really differentiate them in our customer's minds, and how we design for interactions, based on those attributes as selection criteria, whether they be as filters for directed searching, or determining navigation hierarchies. I think I may have almost made some sense there. What I'm really saying is that if we don't have people with large brains figuring out our data architecture, then the value of the systems we manage and render that data with approaches zero. There's probably an appropriate reference to polishing waste product I could use here to labour the point, but I wouldn't do that.

As well as enlightening those of us with smaller brains, of the things Kristen gets to do in her blog entries, which I'm kind of jealous of, is add all those code fragments and scary-looking class diagrams. I can do screenshots in the dark and post those, right-aligned, but I just don't have any groovy code stuff to share, and I know people like that stuff. So I've taken to stealing some of hers and rolling my own.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<stolen-object>
  <label>Data Model Browser - CEDM 1.0</label>
  <explanation>
   <p>The CEDM Data Model Browser describes concepts and attributes that are 
      core to the <b>Tim Code Envy Data Model</b>. This 
      version [CEDM 1.0] covers Tim's pathetic code envy as it is represented 
      in <b>blogs.sun.com, timcaynes.com, and most other places</b>. Things 
      that describe tantrums, impotence, or just plain stupidity are not 
      included in CEDM, but they should be</p>
  </explanation>

  <concept id="envy">
    <label>Envy</label>
    <explanation>Actual thing to be envious about.  The core frustration 
                 to the model owner (e.g. "You've got loads of code about data
                 and stuff and I don't have any, boo hoo.").
    </explanation>

    <implementation-guideline>
      Use an idiot as a stand-in for the envy itself
    </implementation-guideline>
    <association ref="wetfish-id"/>
    <association ref="name">
      <constraint>Strictly syndicated through a wet fish</constraint>

    </association>
    <association ref="description"/>
    <association ref="image"/>
    <association>
  </concept>

</stolen-object>

There. I feel better already.

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Listening Post: Supergrass: Sitting Up Straight

Monday Apr 21, 2008

Content Channels

First of all, full marks for getting high page rankings and integrating all sorts of lovely flash advertising and web 2.0 features like the google user pop-in, user comments and article sharing, plus filters, subscriptions, related stories and gazillions of regular ads, without really compromising the page download, but, really, where's the content gone? This is the regular, non-member, non-CEO, non-attaché, non-content view of a regular forbes.com page and if there was ever a web 2.0 version of the blink tag, this is pretty much it. There's so much going on here that it takes a while to even fathom where the content is. I mean, obviously its in that slot under the header and next to the left navigation, but with so much distraction (ads doing what they do best), it takes a while to orient yourself. Its a bit like trying to focus on the horizon when a boat is pitching uncontrollably and you're just about to take a second look at the lobster thermidor you had for lunch. And there's no handrail. And no boat.

Its probably unfair to pick out Forbes, as there's any number of article-based sites out there which adopt this style of page format. I say, 'adopt this style', but what that really means is 'crams as many ads into the available space', even if they are those circular ads which are published by, and point to, yourself. I guess I still hanker after solid design frameworks and excellence in user experience, but as the channels on the internet converge with the channels on TV and other media, it's predictable that the demands for return on investment drive the content model. Perhaps I should be tipping my hat to the page designers who manage to actually squeeze some content into these pages, notwithstanding the requirements for ad placement, cross-marketing, subscription targets and everything else. That is a real user experience challenge, albeit not one I'd like to have to take on.

As we begin to talk about 'content channels' for sun.com and how we surface rolling content on our existing navigation and page class pages, we are in the (probably) enviable position, from a user experience perspective, of owning not only the whole page, but also the content channel itself, so we can build it pretty much anyway we see fit, within our established web design framework. Maybe it would actually be easier to know that for given page types, we are only allowed to utilize a space 200x200 in the 3rd column using specific technology and hosted on a 3rd-party server that only allows you to add clear text and a 60X60 graphic - but easier isn't necessarily better.

Mind you, we haven't designed for the sun.com content channels yet, so its difficult to pontificate about the relative merits of total ownership of design against paid-for content services, although, naturally, that won't stop me.

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Listening Post: Holy F\*\*k: Lovely Allen

Tuesday Apr 08, 2008

Ad Server Finger Drumming

It is quite possibly a consequence of my patience becoming inversely proportional to my age, but recently, waiting for ad servers to respond in order to complete loading a page is really ticking me off. I'm not bothered about about ads which take a while to load while I'm actually reading the page I requested, but what really gets my fingers drumming on the desk and puts my laser mouse in imminent danger of being crashed unceremoniously against the woodwork with accompanying cries of "c'mon! C'MON-AH!", is ad server code that halts a page load mid-stream until its finished its business. I'm sure the page owners have bought into the most efficient geo-located edge-based web service out there, so why is it increasingly the case that while pages get faster, ad servers seem to get slower? Perhaps it's a deliberate interaction feature, I mean, nothing grabs your attention more than a broken page, but from a customer experience point of view, I don't think that's a journey I would normally care to continue with.

I'm aware that we deploy our own ad server across sun.com, and that's not always bulletproof, but, as you might imagine, I look at as many sun.com pages as any other commercial/consumer sites, and I never have noticeable ad server lag on sun.com. I'm not exactly co-located with the sun.com servers either, being on the free internet in the UK, so I don't get any special treatment. Maybe because we own the deployment of our own ad server, we're in a much better position to monitor performance and make adjustments - I can't pretend to understand the technology behind it (well, ok, I can) - whereas, as is the case for any web service you buy into, if you get your ads delivered by a 3rd party, you can't do much about the external reference issues. That's been true of any page you care to publish since html 1.0 - once you include external references as core components of your page, you're really asking for trouble, notwithstanding any service level agreements you might have in place (and they're always great, right?).

Even as I write this, I'm looking at Facebook and waiting for a hair loss ad to appear in the left-hand navigation. It doesn't actually break the rendering, but it does annoy me all the same - the delays, not because it's targeted me for hair loss products. Although, that is pretty annoying...

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Listening Post: Spiral Vertigo: What I'd Really Like To Say

Monday Apr 07, 2008

The Return of the Design Comic

They've never really been away, but there's a number of places I've been recently where they'd tell the story just perfectly, so I recently dug out all the old slides I had, and got any stuff I was missing from Martin's site, and I'm looking at running some scenarios past people, with the comic treatment.

There's no simpler way to get the message across when you're trying to highlight a particular use case and they're a great, self-documenting way to describe a unique customer journey. More often than not, because they're particularly good for delivering bad news, I pull together all the slides with the really scary close-ups of disgruntled customers' faces, and add suitably appalled call-outs, to make a really heavy-handed point, but, hey, that's ok, as long as you put a joke in, right? Those ones are generally reserved for 'problem' scenarios, where we know there's something wrong, but clickthrough and omniture data doesn't always describe the user experience. Its a kind of 'once more with feeling' approach to describing a problem. To prove something's not working isn't always enough, you have to be able to show what it means to a customer as a result, and the way I'm doing that is with the faces of customers looking, well, pissed off annoyed.

They're not just for bad news though. Most of the characterizations are at the delighted end of the scale, verging on the ecstatic in some cases (that would be for something like the super download speed on the improved docs.sun.com or something), all the way through to Dr Spock puzzlement (not finding products on a product gateway). Some of my favorite artifacts are the customer scenes, such as the 'overhead typing' view, or the 'yes, I'm still in the office at this time' view. My very favorite, however, is the 'cubicle farm', which, even after working from home for 4 years, makes me twitch a little and look over my shoulder when I see it.

If I come up with anything remotely entertaining, which isn't entertaining because I'm highlighting some disasterous product portfolio deployment or something, then I'll share it here. Until then, I'll just post the usual meaningless kind of nonsense.

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Listening Post: Add N to (X): Barry 7's Contraption

Friday Apr 04, 2008

You Know, Like CNET

Before you even get to the point where you ask 'what is your content?', there's an apparent understanding that you need to work out how it surfaces all over your site. Since the very early days of sun.com, one of the biggest goals, as far as maintaining a healthy visitor profile goes, is just how to make things sticky. I'm not talking sticky as in the stuff that makes you go eeuw, but sticky like the invisible elastic brain rubber that compels you, against the gravity of your free will, to revisit those places online that have already visited. It's the same reason you go back to Fry's every so often, just to see if there's any new technology stuff to dribble over, or why you ping last.fm or iTunes to keep up with released, related, and recommended. It might also be the reason you visit Gap every Friday lunchtime - you're just checking it out to see what's new.

But how do you know what's new and where do you expect to find that out? When you're looking at something the scale of sun.com and trying to determine customer behaviours for a given page type, it's not alway a simple task to predict. You might be the kind of visitor who would casually visit the sun.com home page and, not unreasonably, expect to see anything newsworthy enough, that you might be compelled to actually invest time in, to be present right there. You might be more specific than that. You might be the CTO for an SMB or some other suitable market research defined acronym pairing, in which case, you'd probably know that we've got a place just for you, where you'd expect announcements, deep-dives and news to appear, relevant to your needs. You might even have a large propeller sticking out of your head and be interested only in what's going on with Sun Virtual Desktop Infrastructure and how that relates to your development requirements for your linear accellerator or something. Either way, when we've got news for you, we want you to find it. And we want you to come back again. And again. And again.

So that's why we're currently investigating new approaches to surfacing the bestest, most currentest, content around, that's relevant to you, in a way that's going to make you want to come back often, but not take all day to consume when you're engaging with us. One of the ideas we're floating around (or select another flagpole/envelope/conceptualization buzzword bingo term of your own there) is content channels. You know, like CNET. We could funnel these content streams into various containers on product pages, gateways, category pages, etc., so that what's most relevant to you is right there, where you want it, on-demand, so to speak. In terms of web design, this a quite a nice proposal, as we can have the content live elsewhere and suck it through a virtual 'news pipe', which spits it into, for instance, the servers container. Which would probably be quite sticky. Of course, someone, somewhere, needs to be owning, managing, publishing and maintaining the channels, but on the assumption that that would be possible, then a modular approach to deploying those channels where it makes most sense would be, um, neat.

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Listening Post: The Who: I Can See For Miles

Wednesday Apr 02, 2008

Web Prototyping with NetBeans

For the best Ajax-ready environment to support rapid development, its got to be NetBeans 6.0. I think. I mean, I've not actually used it yet, but I do have a need to build some prototypes for dynamic web frameworks that include little widgets and JSF bits and pieces (probably) to enable me to look cleverer than I actually am, which, unsurprisingly, isn't difficult.

I've not settled on a development environment since I started trying to use them in earnest a good few years ago. Most of the things I've used to try and support rapid prototyping are not really IDEs at all, but applications that just do one thing, meaning I end up using 3 or 4 of them and try to stitch everything together rather unsuccessfully at the end. If I was being really pedantic, which I am, I'd say the best development environment I've ever used for web prototyping, where the web part is actually a web part and not just a photoshop part, was XEmacs. I know some of you reading this are going dewy-eyed at the very mention of it, before you get back to work on Dreamweaver.

The problem with most applications, IDEs, or whatever toolkits I've come across, is that they invariably do at least one thing that constantly irritates me. Not the kind of thing that irritates me that you can turn off in an options screen, but the kind of thing that irritates me because its intrinsically the way the application does what it does, whether its the cumbersome previewing methods, or the sublime adherence to a doctype declaration I didn't specify, or even just having windows with fat, ugly borders. Actually, that last one is the kind of irritant that would bug me the most.

So, I'm hoping that NetBeans will be something I can call my friend. If not, its back to XEmacs, a gin and tonic, and a long night of ctrl-c, ctrl-v and ctrl-bladder, until I've hacked together a product finder that surfaces on not just product gateway pages, but the whole of the moon.

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Listening Post: The Prodigy: Poison

Friday Mar 21, 2008

Project Overlap

I know you just love it when you find out your project overlaps with about 4 other projects doing kind of the same thing, but from a different place. That just happens in large-scale organizations, however we arrange ourselves and whatever processes we try and stick to. So when you gracefully collide with the business teams, the publishing and engineering teams and at least 1 other team you didn't actually know existed until this morning, in a conference call that gathers all the stakeholders, it nice to get a good outcome.

We're currently taking a deep dive, or whatever you call it, into the design framework we need in order to support the content architecture around product lines. In other words, if you happen to be the director in charge of, say, server marketing here at Sun, what is it that sun.com needs to do for you? I mean, we know a bunch of stuff about what people are actually doing when they hit those landing pages (we're calling then category pages, for the record), but what is it that we're wanting them to do, and from where did they enter, and to where are they going? Its all very well me just drawing a fancier looking media panel and assuming that we know what's going to play there, or even if it should be a media panel at all. I can use terms like 'customer channel' as if I know what they mean, but in the end, as designers, we're trying to understand the customer journey, in order for us to determine navigation paths and build a design framework that works for everyone.

Which is where collisions are helpful. As long as you have super efficient people around you to pull those overlapping projects together (designers don't really do that kind of stuff very well), you might just strike it lucky and start the conversation at the point where you're all saying "well, that's kind of what we're trying to do". And that's what happened this week, which made everything fit together way more neatly than it did last week. I finally get to the point where I know what's required, we're engaged with the stakeholders, and we're all talking the same language.

Typically, I'm on vacation all next week, so I'll forgotten it all by the time I get back (only joking).

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Listening Post: The Wombats: Moving To New York

Wednesday Mar 19, 2008

The IA Has Landed

Its been a good long while since Martin left us to ramp up the customer experience over at Cisco, and then our über information architect, Jennifer, jumped ship for a measly directorship. Since then, we've tried to maintain a steady course through the icebergs of web experience design and other shipping analogies that have come our way. Sometimes you can pull in the slack, and share the extra workload between those of you that are left, but its not always been super effective, and, from an IA perspective, we've become slightly rudderless. I mean, we can launch the rescue boats pretty effectively when we're responding to web distress calls, and we've always been pretty good navigators, but there's not really been anyone up in the IA bridge for a while, playing a strong captain's role.

So, hurrah! then, for the arrival, this week, of our new Lead Information Architect (and for a paragraph devoid of nautical wordery nonsense). Holly started on Monday and will, I'm sure, do a great job in her new role. I'm already putting her name next to a number of projects that desperately require the attention of someone who actually knows what they are talking about, and I'm looking forward to seeing some much-needed IA focus back on our projects. Welcome Holly. I've got this web feedback task taxonomy that needs a bit of work if you're available. Oh, and the product categories could use some direction. And the gateways of course. And what about that home page stuff? etc...

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Listening Post: Robyn Hitchcock: Surgery

IETab for XHTML Traps

You'd think I would check. First rule of web design and all that. I mean, we extensively test our web design components against all the platform and browser combinations out there, and Andrew and Greg are constantly redefining CSS elements so that we maintain a consistent style, whatever you're using to connect to us.

But that can't save me from being a lazy arse. I like to put images in blog posts to illustrate points, or just to make myself less uninteresting than I am. I also like to have them aligned left or, usually, right, with text wrapping around them. This is from the HTML 1.0 handbook, right? So I was rightly ashamed of myself when I installed the IETab add-on for Firefox the other day and took a look at some blog postings. Initially, I'd installed IETab to try and sync up PicLens with a thumbnail folder view of an enormous image directory as presented as a windows explorer view. That didn't work, but I thought IETab was kind of interesting, so I duly went away and 'IETabbed' my bookmarks.

Oops. seems that that old align=right hspace=8 vspace=8 ain't what it used to be, and probably hasn't been since about 2003 or something. For blog templates written in HTML 4 (of which there are tons out there I've used or written), this old syntax is just fine, even if it's like the 'Hello World' of web design, but, you know, if it ain't broke. Except it is broke. In XHTML 1.0 (correct me if I'm wrong, but only in your head), those handy attributes are deprecated, so if your doctype declaration contains the XHTML 1.0 string (like this blog template), the page rendering is undefined. No problem, then, if you've been using Firefox since forever, because Firefox just understands that some people out there can't code for toffee and gracefully deprecates on your behalf. Internet Explorer, however, throws its toys right out of the pram. Because we always gave IE a hard time in the past for being rotten with supporting web standards, it gets all fussy if you make mistakes these days. At least, mistakes in the way IE wants to implement XHTML.

Suffice to say, align=right translates to something like align=centerwithnowrapanddoitrightnexttimeidiot. Meaning this whole blog has looked a right old mess on IE since I started. My fault really. I should have checked. How authoritative I must have appeared, spouting on about web design standards, customer experience journeys, usability and everything, when the very page I was writing looked like someone has thrown up a flickr photostream at random in between the passages of pompous rambling prose like this.

Anyway, you're probably reading this, if anyone is, through google reader or something, so it really doesn't matter. A new class in the CSS for those images fixed everything pretty quick. In case you're using FireFox, and you're now thinking "oh, I might just take a look at my blog to see what it looks like but I can't be bothered to start Internet Explorer which I can't anyway because I'm on Solaris and I don't happen to have a virtual version of XP running somewhere", then try IETab. It eats memory like children eat cakes at a birthday party, but its worth it.

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Listening Post: Sleater-Kinney: The Fox

Tuesday Mar 18, 2008

Sun.com for SMBs

We've got a new place for Small and Medium Businesses on sun.com. Take a look. It's called "Sun's Place for Small and Medium Businesses". And guess what. It's full of stuff for Small and Medium Businesses.

Why is this significant? You'd be correct in thinking this would be very old news for some of our competitors, who have their entire portfolio of products and services arranged by business or audience, right from the home page and throughout their sites. Sun, however, never ones to follow a trend, have always adopted a product-oriented information architecture and stuck with it through sea-changes in marketing and sales. Whatever our key messages are, and however they are woven into the fabric of sun.com, you know you can always find our products by following predictable and consistent paths. There have always been logical groupings of products as solutions, or as part of selected promotions, but, you know, they've never really done the job of speaking to a particular market segment.

So that's why the Small and Medium Business section is important. It's a first step into supporting customers that might share common business needs, rather than providing a bunch of great products that might fit together as a discrete solution package. Of course, what's important for a specific market is how our solutions enable them to solve their business problems, but previously, you'd be looking for the solution yourself, rather than having your own space, where Sun is able to highlight those that we already know will be important to you.

It's only a start, in terms of designing for addressable markets, but the change in focus for the information architecture is hugely significant, so it's an exciting development. You are still reading this, right?

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Listening Post: Half Man Half Biscuit: Breaking News

Friday Mar 14, 2008

Creative Suite: Au Revoir, Bonjour

As all good designers know these, you need lots and lots and lots and lots of hardware and software to do your job properly. I first started using Adobe Photoshop professionally at version 2.5, which I guess was about mid-nineties. Sun being Sun of course, back then, a Mac or a Windows PC was anathema, no, worse, the antichrist or something, so the version of 2.5 we had was actually the port that ran on Solaris. which was probably also version 2.5. Actually, that port was pretty good, I thought. Especially as you could run it on a Sun box. I think we had it installed on a few Ultra 2s with 1GB of memory, which was immense in those days, and so everything moved along very nicely. Mind you, without layers, there was only so much you could do at a time. You just needed a huge filesystem to hold those 50 saved versions of each file. Luckily, everything was networked to the nth and so that wasn't a problem either.

Fast forward to 2008 then, as I sit in my home office, on a slightly creaky Windows PC, and I'm hitting some problems with my design tools. I'm still with Photoshop, of course, except now its part of Creative Suite 3 Design Premium, and all the good stuff that comes with that. What I also still have, though, after 4 years in this room, is a single-core processor, 1 disk, and only 2GB of memory. Doesn't sound too bad? Ever run Adobe Bridge? Anyway, since installing CS3 a while back, things have not run smoothly. Most recently, I've had nasty problems with failure to boot or shutdown, and my suspicions have been aroused by the network activity icons blinking away in the corner as everything else fails to start.

As most good designers know, poking around in the innards of your operating system is never really a good idea, but some self-diagnosis was definitely in order. After an afternoon of software removal and starting and stopping of services, I, not surprisingly, could not find a cure. How serendipitous, then, that I should receive and email from Adobe, inviting me to join their user-to-user ("this is NOT adobe support you MORON") forums, to share and collaborate with my designer community. I thought I might see if anyone was sharing my 'Adobe Bridge 3 CPU 100% hang crash metadata read' problems, when I stumbled upon multiple threads about something called the 'bonjour service'. I had seen that in the services manager in XP and thought it was something to do with XP ordering croissants for me. I mean, its in Program Files, not under Adobe or (as it turns out it might well should be) Apple.

It seem that the bonjour service is installed as part of CS3 and is responsible for initiating network connections to Adobe Version Cue servers. Bonjour is Apple software and is also part of the iTunes installation, by the look of it, which is why it appears to be installed as a standalone product. This might be very helpful is you are actually using Version Cue, especially in a large organization with distributed servers for DAM. Its not particularly helpful if you're not using Version Cue. Its spectacularly unhelpful if its actually hanging your computer and using shedloads of resource when its up and running. There are a number of ways to stop bonjour, if its causing problems. I found the most effective thing was to actually remove it. Since I have done so, I've had no problems with hanging startups or resource draining. I'm yet to try and use iTunes (which I hate anyway), to see what problems might lie there, but for now, I don't really care. I can get on with crafting comps for category pages. Oh, and writing huge, sprawling blogs.

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Listening Post: Bloc Party: Flux (Rev Terry's Drone On You Flux-uating Diamond Mix)

Thursday Mar 13, 2008

Sun.com Works of Art

Not my words. Those good folks at siteIQ conducted a regular, in-depth, web site best practice review of sun.com towards the end of last year, and there were some great highlights. There were plenty of lowlights too, of course, and we're already figuring out our way forward as we try and resolve some of those, but, as I have my trumpet out, I'm about to blow it.

We put a great deal of effort into how we support customers through the buying cycle. In the past, we've not had great success with integrating ecommerce activities into our product pages. Product buying has always been something of an uncomfortable appendage on sun.com - a kind of strange distended web version of the dead people in the Sixth Sense - but, in recent years, we've evolved our ecommerce capabilities into a compelling, well-rounded customer experience. Its very satisfying to see that the latest siteIQ report picks up on this and singles out the 'Get It' tab on our product pages for singular praise. From the report (referencing the Sun SPARC Enterprise T5220 Server):

"Kudos to Sun.com for a 'Get It' page that is truly a work of art. This page starts by putting SPARC servers in multiple contexts for visitors, including price, compute power and scalability."
"This page leads to a short and well crafted e-commerce clickstream that allows buyers to quickly configure additional options and purchase the product in two additional clicks."

The fact that this whole experience hangs together so well is due to some supercool customer experience and interactive design work in the web experience team, and some key collaborations with our publishing and engineering teams and ecommerce vendors. What we're actually talking about here is the seamless integration of of the ecommerce platform, that drives the transactions, with the sun.com environment, where we're supporting your decision making process. That Get It tab is part of the sun.com information architecture, of course, and navigating between tabs on a product page is a consistent and coherent design experience and all that, but its not actually on sun.com at all. Toot!

That last bit was my trumpet, by the way.

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Listening Post: Beth Orton: Someone's Daughter

Wednesday Mar 12, 2008

Unified Web Feedback

If you really want to let us know what you think, there's any number of ways you can let us know, but these days, we should expect you to chose the web as your primary channel. In other words, we should support you pretty well on Sun's multiple web venues if you want to provide feedback on our products, services, or simply to let us know that the x4100 page has an apostrophe in the wrong place (which was probably something Iv'e done).

The truth is rather more sobering, as it is for many large-scale web sites. That's not to say we score badly. Its just that there is room for improvement. In the last year, there has been a team at Sun dedicated to resolving all our customer interaction issues, whether it be from first contact on a sales phone line, or a click on an email link, or even when you get your hands on a piece of Sun hardware and open the box. They're even looking at the box. One of the key components of that work is understanding the customer journey from first contact through to resolution. That might be manifest as a phone tree, or telesales lifecycle, or as a web feedback system.

One of our biggest tasks in understanding how to design a web infrastructure to support the wide range of web feedback we receive at Sun, is to map the customer journey from first contact, through task filtering and into an internal feedback system. Broadly speaking, this customer interaction can be categorized in three distinct phases; invitation, submission, confirmation. Within those phases, there are a number of related subtasks and subsystems that actually make the thing run (technical term there), but from a design perspective, we're really considering how to seamlessly manage the transition between phases and ensure a satisfactory conclusion for our customers. In addition, of course, the whole experience should be simple, consistent and concise.

Its a challenging task, and we're trying to accommodate multiple feedback types across multiple venues, and, naturally, tight project deadlines (which means I should probably be building wireframes instead of writing this). Where we're focusing our efforts right now is on just how far we can go with contextually-driven feedback. If we're able to categorize the invitation in terms of the customer task and the current context, we should, in theory, be able to cut a swathe through a task filtering navigation path and drive straight to the submission phase, where any options or forms are specific to the task. However, we can't be completely confident that our invitations will always be contextually clean. We'll often use a global navigation component to host a persistent link, and it wouldn't be enough to simply assume that because a customer clicked on a link labeled 'feedback' in a footer on a product page that they are necessarily wanting to provide feedback on that product. They might just want to tell us the site is very slow today. It may also be true that even though they may have accepted an invitation to feed back on a particular product, what they really want to say is that we've actually speelled the product incorructly, which we might call a 'typo', which as everyone knows, goes straight to the jitterbug queue labeled 'null'. Only joking.

Why is it unified web feedback? Well, feedback systems evolve, much like web sites evolve. In fact, feedback and venue, in a multi-venue operation such as we have at Sun, are inextricably linked, so we've nurtured distinctly different feedback systems on venues such as sun.com, developer.sun.com, java.sun.com and others. As we try to align operations across venues and increase efficiency for our customers, we're just trying to get to a place where we can synchronize activities more effectively. As far as design goes, unification, even though I''m cursorily referring to it here, is a sizeable problem, so I'm hoping nobody notices that I haven't cracked that nut yet.

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Listening Post: Aphex Twin: Flaphead

PicLens for flickr

I was pointed to this by one of my excellent flickr contacts. If you've ever struggled through multiple pages of photo pools or even your own photostream looking for that particular image, or just to have a browse around, you'll know that there's still the page-at-a-time top-level filter to most of those operations. There are any number of aggregators out there which might do something different, and yes, you could probably just take an rss feed and roll your own viewing platform, but, you know, I'm not going to do that.

So hallelujah for PicLens. Not only does it do wonderous things with a photoset, pool, contact list, comments list etc., it also happens to manifest itself as a firefox plugin. Not necessarily a big deal you might say, but this is the most un-firefox plugin firefox plugin I've come across. It doesn't just sit in your browser and do neat things, it takes over your entire screen and throws photos around in a 3-dimensional space, offering views of multiple images that you just can't get otherwise. Honestly, it breathes a whole new life into an old photostream and makes you re-evaluate those photos you've seen over and over for the last 5 years. Brilliant

It does allow you to change views, so you can make it look like Adobe Bridge (on a day where Adobe bridge isn't taking 99% CPU and crashing your computer), but its the flying-around-in-space views that really make it interesting. Of course, if you have a 1920x1200 desktop, you need something quite hefty to iron out the judders, but, being a designer, I've obviously got far more horsepower than I need anyway, so it flies along nicely. Do try it. Its not just for flickr, it works on facebook, yahoo, picassa, bebo, myspace, and much more.

I was using Firefox 2.0.0.12 on XP, for those of you who like numbers. I did notice as I was installing the plugin that it said something like 'oh, um, Mac users click here', but I didn't investigate.

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Listening Post: Go! Team: Get It Together

Tuesday Mar 11, 2008

MySQL on sun.com

Although he refers to his 'cage' rather often, this vodcast/podcast from the senior engineering director for sun.com, Will Snow, is a great insight into the way MySQL is working on sun.com today, and how we're looking at clustering and high availability enhancements with the 5.0 release. I really don't know whether that last statement was technically correct, but that's what Will said, so it must be true.

Will doesn't just look after sun.com though, of course, there's the super-popular subdomains such as blogs.sun.com, wikis.sun.com and a whole host of other Sun web sites, all hosted out of his 'cage' somewhere in a nuclear bunker somewhere under the sea, probably. Its obvious hearing Will speak about the set up that he knows his onions, and he also happens to be rather pleasant on the ear, in a kind of hypnotic 'this is not the hardware you are looking for' kind of way. I've known Will for as many years as I have fingers, and if there's one thing you can be sure of, he knows how to put hardware and services together to create robust, scalable solutions. After all, there's no better way to say how how dependable your products are than by running your own operations on them. At Sun, we run the whole company on them - and we always have.

Now for a gratuitous MySQL link

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Listening Post: The Streets: Don't Mug Yourself

Wednesday Feb 20, 2008

Get Fed

Its sometimes the small additions to a web design framework that make a difference. Well, to me they do. As I went through the weekly process of trying out the latest feed readers the other day, just to say that I'd tried out the latest feed readers and decided to stick with google reader after all, again, I took some time to revisit the feeds & subscriptions (yes, they're the same thing, but it depends who you talk to) that are available across sun.com, blogs.sun.com, developer, bigadmin, java.net and all those lovely places we call home.

Its thanks to folks like Lou and others that we've done such a good job of getting our subscriptions embedded all over our web venues - and there are a ton of them to choose from now. Sure, there are the occasional dead ends in the subscription paths, but in general, there's a whole range of rss/atom/xml links out there for you to pick and choose from, whether you're a java developer, a press analyst, a system administrator, or even all of those things and more. You might even just want to get a regular feed of the blogs here at Sun, notwithstanding the drivel like this that you might have to wade through to get to the NetBeans or Glassfish entries.

The fact that there are so many can be a challenge, however. From a web experience perspective, we want to be as consistent as possible in terms of the presentation of these available feeds and their context, so that when you're at the place where it's relevant, its an obvious and trivial exercise to to move from content consumer to content subscriber. Now, obviously, as web designers, we hate it when we spend 6 months on a design framework and then you just go and suck out all the content and read it in an application something akin to notepad on acid, but, if you're gonna do that, we want to make even that customer experience a good one. We're so good to you.

Which leads me on to the teeny tiny feed icon. If you snoop around sun.com or our developer site, you might have already noticed it. Its not big, but it is clever. It's driven by metadata attached to the content, and the drop-down menu of available feeds is built dynamically as the page is rendered, so its always current and context-driven, rather than a 'global' subscription list. I mean, we have one of those, but you're not targeting anyone by including that on every page. Check it out yourself on the top right area next to the social bookmark icons on the developer site or the sun.com download page. Simple, but nice.

By the way, as Andrew and Greg aren't around at this time of day, I had to work all that technical stuff out by myself, so I'll go and lie down now...

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Listening Post: Beatles: Hello Goodbye

Friday Feb 15, 2008

Design Specification Roadmap

There is always something nice about creating milestones and to-do lists in Basecamp, when you're not quite sure what to do next with the incoming design specifications. In truth, of course, defining what I am expected to do next is a neat way of putting off what I'm supposed to do next, but at least I know in what order I'm not getting around to things.

I do find that, even though the end result can be reasonably consistent, the way I set up each project is usually markedly different. This is normally because I'm putting milestones in the order that someone else's project plan has them laid out, and then I'm building the to-do lists to align with those milestones. In actual fact, this is probably the best way for me to work, as I am a completely hopeless project manager. I've done a course and everything, but I fear it's application to the task that makes a good PM. Thankfully, I'm able to bank on the support of any number of project managers around here who are scarily efficient, so I've not yet dropped the ball completely.

Needless to say, as I'm writing this, I'm supposed to be checking a box marked "complete audit of user stories & user flows", but this is multitasking. Well, its multitasking as I know it, which is doing multiple tasks, but not necessarily at the same time. Or in the correct order. Or today.

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Listening Post: Shelby Lynne: Where I'm From

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