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 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 Mar 12, 2008

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

Friday Dec 21, 2007

Are We Ready Yet?

Web ready? There must be some simple process to make sure that all this product data is stored somewhere, so that we can access it it when we're rendering product content on sun.com? No? Ah. But there is a process. There's a few.

Designing interactivity based on product taxonomies is really interesting stuff. There's a number of ways you can slice the data which enables you to present compelling experiences that drive to conversion. It's even more interesting when you're designing on an assumption of what those taxonomies look like, rather than what they actually look like. There is a point up to which you can make sensible design decisions, based of top-level and subcategory branching, for example, but there does come another point where, without the data, you really don't know whether you can entertain alternate experiences, through, say, filtering across common product attributes. If you don't know what attributes there are, you don't know if they are common.

But designers like challenges. The challenge is often to get folks to lust after the design so much that they'll give you whatever you want. I'm asking for the data.

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Listening Post: Public Image: Public Image

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The Sun Web Experience Design team is a group of user experience professionals committed to making the online experience with Sun the best it can be.

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