Lolspeak in The Gap and Lowly Passengers

The Gap, now in Lolspeak:



Unrelated: why do passengers not deserve a single capital letter, when almost every other word does (Alameda ferry)?

Mozilla: Please Fix This

All the tools I use professionally are open source, with the exception of MS Office and Visio. My browser is Firefox, my email client is Thunderbird, and I manage my calendars with whichever calendaring program wasn't abandoned by Mozilla. By and large Mozilla software it's pretty good. It does the job very well much of the time, and competently almost all the time; but I do wish Mozilla had a little more UI sense and discipline to make better, clearer choices in their product development.

Tabs, Tabs, Everywhere
Thunderbird makes a big deal of its tabs. "Now with tabs, better search, and email archiving" is the main selling point on the download page:

Now, I'm all for innovative UIs, but did the world really need tabs for email? Email has been around for decades, and mostly mainstream for 15 years. Most consumer desktop programs open a new window when you open an email. It's pretty much the standard paradigm for desktop clients; web and mobile clients are probably making this paradigm semi-obsolete, but millions of people use desktop email programs every day, so it's not dead yet. And I don't think tabs are the way to go for email.

Sure, you could make the same argument about browsers: before tabbed browsers started gaining market share, new pages opened in new windows, but tabs have proven themselves as a superior alternative for many people. No argument from me; I used a tabbed wrapper around IE back when Firefox (then Firebird) was more unstable than Jeffrey Dahmer. But a browser has one primary function (viewing web pages), whereas email clients have a long history of letting you manage more than just email, with calendaring, to-dos, notes, and various other things. And that is where the tabbed design breaks down, and why emails shouldn't be opening in tabs. Note I don't expect the Mozilla people to read, care about, agree with, or implement any of these suggestions; after all, it took them years to fix the horrible usability error whereby you couldn't disable the functionality that marks emails as read when displayed in the preview pane. This is the one problem that prevented me from using Thunderbird as my email client. It's now an option, and disabled by default, if memory serves--thanks! But I'm going to gripe^H^H^H^H^Hwrite about it anyway.

It's a pretty common occurrence for me to get an email trying to set up a meeting, with "Does Thursday at 3 work for you?" That's not exactly convenient if you use Thunderbird for calendaring with the Lightning plug-in--now you have an email in a tab, and your calendar in a tab, and so you can't look at them at the same time. You can't alt-tab between them. You have to be keyboard-savvy enough to know that ctrl-tab is how you flip through tabs in a tabbed MDI program. Opening an email in a tab is also not as dramatic visually as opening a new window, so it was pretty frequent for me to open an email multiple times because I hadn't seen the new tab.

Tabs work well for distinct top-level features in Thunderbird: email, calendar, notes, to-dos, etc. Using tabs for sub-features of any of these breaks the hierarchy.

To their credit, Thunderbird lets you disable tabs for email, and that's the first thing I did, but it shouldn't be the default.

Drag Queens
While on the subject of Thunderbird, when dragging attachments onto a message window, why does the main message body not register the drop, while the "To:" section does? What kind of sense does that make?

Conceptually, the attachment is closer to the body of the message; it has nothing to do with the recipients. I understand why the whole address section is a drop target--that's because the attachment summary opens a little square to the right of the address section when you've added an attachment. But that square is nowhere to be seen until you've added said attachment, making it very non-obvious how you're supposed to attach files, especially if you've tried to drop a file onto the message body and failed. Come on, folks, this isn't hard. Get it right.

Tangent #1

Speaking of drag and drop: why do bloggers and web content creators still put up with the pre-2000 model of having to explicitly upload their photos via a dedicated upload form, and (if they're lucky) move it into place in their rich-text editor? Why haven't enough smart techies come up with a standard way to let people just drag a photo from their desktop onto their rich-text editor and have it show up in the right place, without having their text reflowed or mangled beyond repair?

I know the technical answer; what I want to know is why people aren't angry enough about it to demand a fix. Software should be transparent; exposing the nasty technical guts of the software by not providing an integrated experience is a sad cop-out, and the web community should do better.

More T-Bird

While on the topic of Thunderbird, another little thing that wouldn't hurt is to add a little intelligence into the parsing and display of the email. Apple's terrible Mail program does this remarkably well by automatically highlighting words like "yesterday" and "tomorrow" and showing a context menu to create events in their otherwise execrable iCal program; it also highlights contact information like phone numbers detected inside an email.

What I'd like Thunderbird to do is be a little smarter in the message display. When someone receives a message and highlights a section of it, then right-clicks on it, why not show a Search for xxx in your browser (using the default browser and search settings)? Even better: if you can detect that the highlighted string is an address, add a link to a map (a Google map would guarantee even more money for the Mozilla foundation); a phone number? Show a context menu to add it to your address book (together with sender's name and email), or overlay the contact's info if you can find it in the address book.

Yes, I know, I can edit the code myself and probably finagle my changes into the trunk, but why should I have to?

Pick One
One last gripe: I wish the Mozilla folks would just focus a little.
Why have plug-ins, add-ons and extensions? Why even use that awful phrase "add-on", when "extension" is pretty clear (extensions extend the basic functionality, get it?) and a lot less techy? Similarly, why have both themes and personas? And why have Firefox, Seamonkey and Camino? Why not call them Firefox, Firefox Suite and Firefox for Mac, if you must distinguish, since they share so much of their rendering technology? What are the differences within those product families? Is there a difference? Most importantly, why should the end-user care?

With double-digit market share, Firefox isn't the bailiwick of basement-dwelling, Gentoo-compiling geeks anymore, so the old hyper-specific tech terminology needs a revamp.


Twitter: Unsafe at Any Speed

I'm a very light Twitter user. The value of the service is still mostly alien to me. And on the rare occasions I log on (or try to) and post something (or try to), something doesn't work.

I've actually been keeping track and found that Twitter breaks on elementary, "mission-critical", sine-qua-non functionality (like logging on, posting a tweet, or refreshing your stream; not the fancy stuff like uploading a photo or anything--I'm talking about operations without which there is no Twitter service) a full 66% of the time (that's two out of every three times I log on to Twitter).

I know scale is hard, but with over $150M in the bank and tech people begging to work for them, you'd think they'd have the absolute basics whaled nailed and rock-solid by now. As it is, they have more in common with my old 1983 Plymouth Horizon and its lovely (un)planned obsolescence, except people are treating it like it's a gold-plated Veyron.

Even their log-out functionality is broken right now:

I'll readily forgive a brand-new startup site in beta built by 2 unpaid engineers functioning on espresso and Red Bull throwing out erroneous 403s occasionally. But a supposedly major consumer site with $160M in funding, ~330 employees (as of 11/18/10), and dozens of engineers and operations people, trying to paint itself as a major force for marketing on the internet, at 11pm PST on a Thursday night? I don't believe for one second a technical staff that big, hip and passionate about their product is stupid, careless or incompetent--I'm just baffled. And yes, Twitter is big and has novel scale problems, but they're not the largest site on the web, and I don't remember a single time when google.com failed to perform a search or display their home page. Do you?

I know the world has gone completely insane about Twitter (another round of funding at a multi-billion-dollar valuation is supposedly in the works), but these guys seriously need to stop screwing around and solve their two biggest problems (stability and monetization) once and for all. Until then, I'll keep fail-whale-watching with the other haterz.

Encouraging Piracy, Part XLII

Queuing up a video on Hulu, I ran into this absurd notice:

Why should I be able to watch this video on my computer but not on my iPhone, or Hulu-enabled TV/Blu-Ray player, when I can watch other videos on any device? Why can I stream some shows on Netflix, while others require a physical DVD to be shipped to me? What kind of sense does any of this make to anybody? Restricting access in any way (not just to some arbitrary collection of devices) means smaller residual checks for actors, fewer royalties to the studios, fewer opportunities to display ads, and pissed off users who just want to watch a show. Everybody loses. The display device should be completely irrelevant. This is just as absurd as a book you can read in bed or on your sofa, but not on a beach chair or a commuter train. Or a CD that can only be played on players approved by the manufacturer. Nobody would do that sort of thing. Right?

In the meantime, people who download torrents get their content quickly and can watch it whenever, wherever they want, on any device they own, unencumbered by meaningless, arbitrary restrictions.

Other than the Soup Nazi, I can't think of any business that is so obdurately hostile to the people that support it financially. Doesn't anybody in the entertainment industry realize they'll keep shrinking and alienate everyone around them for as long as they make piracy the most attractive method for accessing their content?


Lying with charts

Charts can be very useful for capturing complex data and making it understandable. They're also very easy to use maliciously (or stupidly) to mislead and dramatically exaggerate differences. This chart (source) is such an example.

The leftmost green bar is 362 pixels tall, with a fairly tall point at the top. The rightmost blue bar is 52 pixels tall, with a somewhat flat point. This suggests the site with the green bar (a nice, warm, winning, "green means go" color) has almost 7 times as much traffic as the site with the blue bar (a cold color).

But if you look at the actual numbers at the top of each bar, you'll see that the short bar (6.149M) is only 2.3 times shorter than the tall bar (14.340M). That's because the y axis conveniently doesn't start at zero. The net effect is a 3x magnification of the actual difference. Yet the chart maker can still safely claim they're not lying, and indeed they're not--the numbers are right there, undoctored, for all to see. But the damage from the giant visual difference is already done.

Shrinking the scale of a chart like this so it doesn't start at zero is dishonest. Chart junk like fake-3D bars with taller pointy tops on taller bars only makes it worse. Zillow, you should be ashamed of yourself. Maybe your chief economist could come forward and disavow this piece of agitprop for what it is.

Disclosure: I led Trulia's Data Services team until August, 2010. I no longer work there, but still work on producing accurate data that informs and doesn't lie.