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

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 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

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

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

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

Tuesday Feb 12, 2008

Code Branch Madness

I've come across some dot-versions in my time, but nothing quite so spectacular as the JavaScript source file referenced in my flickr template. As I was flicking through the lines of source - I can't even remember why - I stumbled across this rather nice block:

<script type="text/javascript" src="http://l.yimg.com/www.flickr.com/javascript/fold_main.js.v1.2.1.2.1.3.1.2.1.2.1.4.1.126.1.3.1.8.1.92.1.5.1.6.1.23.1.8.1.33.1.79.1.3.1.43.1.7.1.108.14"> </script>

Not only does it have the most stupendous filename, but on closer inspection, it also includes the lyrics to Stop the Pigeon, Hong Kong Phooey and others, as test data for some kind of bubble div.

It must be time to sign off for the day. I can't top that.

Note: Thanks to Scott for pointing out that since I'm in marketing, I don't know what I'm talking about...

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Listening Post: The Waterboys: We will not be lovers (via Musicovery)

Friday Feb 08, 2008

Spam Me Gently

I normally get a reasonable amount of unsolicited offers for make her saTisfy you wanT prescription cheap online! and insurance I will never need via email. They even filter through the sun.com domain occasionally - congratulations to them - but they are, almost without exception, meaningless twaddle or borderline abusive. What a nice surprise then that this morning I got 38 emails forwarded from a) the blogs.sun.com comment system and b) the sun.com postmaster replying to bounces from the comment system sending to people who don't work here anymore, that were all rather, well, polite in their spamness.

I'm sure others got them, although I didn't check, and Igor was kind enough to let me know what was going on, but the basic message was something like "thanks you very much". There were a couple of variants, like "That is nice", or "thank you admin", but overall, there wasn't anything unpleasant in there. They were only trying to generate traffic back to their domains, bless 'em. I was kind of glad to help out, since they asked so nicely. Of course, after a few minutes, I rang Scotland Yard, replied to the sender with some vicious cease-and-desist, blocked their IP and did a reverse DDOS spam bucket mangle attack, which brought down the entire internet connection of Turkey, after which I felt better. Then I sent then a nice message saying "thanks you for your spam".

I didn't really do all that, of course. I'm a designer, not a programmer or a system administrator. I just looked at the comment system and thought "that's table cell's not aligned correctly".

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Listening Post: Primal Scream: Shoot Speed/Kill Light

Thursday Jan 17, 2008

House of Flying Blades

I kind of like this video. I mean, I probably should like it by default or something, but I actually like this one. I particularly like how happy everyone is and how sunny it is. As I look out of the window on a drab January day in the east of England, watching someone put bottles into a wheelie bin, watching this video instead is a much better option. As well as everyone in it being sickeningly healthy and pretty much oozing vitamin supplements, I'm always happy to see those shots where you pull back from a scene as far as you think is possible until the disappearing frames turn into dots on a whiteboard and you overlap into an office scene where people are pointing earnestly at things and you continue to zoom back, right out the window, where you see something relevant on the roof or something and you zoom back, a bit like that movie that zooms into the earth's core and back to space again, right back, until the earth is a dot on the screen and it morphs into a dot at the end of a sentence that is so rammed with clarity your eyes hurt.

You know what I mean. The best bit, however, is the house of flying blade servers (about a minute in). I used to occasionally go down to the server room in Bagshot to reboot the remote access modem pool, but it was all pretty static. I don't know how any sysadmin survives in this place though. These guys in yellow shirts must be some kind of ninja sysadmins, or watch the Matrix too much and are able to dodge flying hardware or something.

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Listening Post: 808 State: Magical Dream

Tuesday Jan 15, 2008

Web 2, Content 1

Obviously there should be some clever dot nomenclature in that title to make it more obvious, but that would have made it it just, well, too obvious, and besides, I didn't fancy the idea of what the permalink would look like and since when have I written a meaningful title anyway.

Maybe you've read this far. Maybe you only got the first line in your reader and so you haven't seen this line and I wasn't interesting enough to make you get this far. I'll probably end up putting some screen grab or other in here later to make it look nice and as for the Sun template, that makes everything I write look nicer than it really is, which makes me seem more authoritative, when obviously I'm not. But you might not see that either.

If you grew up with the 'content is king' mantra stuck on your huge CRT monitor with a post-it note in the late 90s, and you were devising a strategy for your web content that was focused clearly on what you had to say, rather than how it looked, then welcome back to relevancy. As we've (the royal we've) integrated web 2.0 capabilities further into our core publishing architectures, and in many cases, foregone ownership of publishing technologies altogether, we've willfully opted back into html 1.0. Sure, we have open, distributed platforms that mean we can write once, publish multiple and aggregate endlessly (how fun was it to make recursive feeds of yourself on natuba, before it turned into some weird iphone freakshow?), but how can I squeeze my multimedia in there, or my flash-based corporate profile? Answer is, you can't. Not really. Not without accepting that things will end up a bit, well, not exactly how you want them. Of course, you can publish a bookmark to your 1.0 web site, which looks as fantastic as it ever did, and even has all the pixels in the right place, if you're using the right browser/OS combination, natch, but an RSS feed? What kind of losers want to read that stuff?

If you've spent 17 hours updating your blog template, like I often do, to get the icons left aligned and the text justified and just the right size, then you've just fallen into the pit marked 'waste of time', where you'll find me. Of the 17 people that read anything I ever write, about 16 of them have probably subscribed via google reader or bloglines or something, which means that all formatting has disappeared and my carefully crafted font is now 19 inches tall and my in-line images are not in-line at all, but a huge page break in the middle. Mind you, of those 16 people, only 6 of them are actually reading, the others are just marking it as 'read'. In fact, I'm the only one who cares, but even I don't care anymore. I'm writing everything with html 1.0 as the lowest common denominator, which means at least I get to right-align my images, but not much else. It's quite nostalgic. I might dig out my copy of Mosaic and see how things look. And then take a ride on my space hopper or something.

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Listening Post: John Martyn: Certain Surprise

Friday Dec 14, 2007

New Team Home

For any of you have been following the Sun.com Customer Experience and Stuff blog, you've probably realized it's no longer Martin Hardee writing it. Since Martin left Sun to go and customer experienceizate Cisco.com, we've been running that blog as a team effort and it's probably about time we got ourselves a new team home. There's no particularly good reason for moving, except that the blog's URL is a personal one - blogs.sun.com/martinhardee - and we wouldn't want to misrepresent Martin, or give a false impression of who's writing for it.

Actually, that's not 100% true. It sounds good in a corporately responsible way, but actually, the reason we're moving is that this new blog is MINE. ALL MINE. Well, its the sun.com design team's, so we've given it an abstract URL identifier so that its not associated with one person. We'll probably lose 80% of our regular readership that linked to the old URL in a feed reader or added a link in their del.ectab.le bookmarks or just have it favorited, but I'll be sure to put an enormous blinking message on the old blog, to try and redirect folks here. If nothing else, it'll show us if people actually read the other one, rather it being popular through automated referrals.

We will endeavor, of course, to make this an interesting place to come, so hopefully, if you've never even read the old blog and are reading this because you thought 'New Team Home' might have something to do with football, then we're already reaching out. As a point of interest, even though I might say something like 'favorite endeavor', I'm actually in the UK, so when I say 'football', I really mean 'soccer', but I'll let you interpret it as it makes most sense to you, which is probably more sense than it makes to me. Most other contributors to this blog are in the US, so when they say 'soccer', they probably mean 'football', if you're reading this in London. Not that they will. They might say something like 'community', though, which will refer to our programs to engage with specific audiences to build a relationship, not to a block of flats in Hackney.

We'll be posting thoughts on web design, customer experience, usability and letting you know what's happening on sun.com and associated sites. I expect we'll post completely irrelevant things too, but we'll try and make them sound relevant by adding a web design tie-in in the last paragraph. You can let us know what you think, or maybe just quietly agree/disagree. Either way, we hope you'll find it a worthy distraction for a few minutes and maybe we'll even be interesting or useful. That'll be a first for me, but there's more cleverer people on the design team, so if I can somehow bribe/blackmail them into breaking their blogging duck, it should be an interesting web experience.

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Listening Post: Chris Morris: Radio Show 27/07/94

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