WordPress gives a window into user experience design

With the WordPress 2.7 Navigation Options Survey, the fine folks at WordPress.org have opened the kimono on one of the trickiest product management tasks: user experience design. The context: the administrative interface of WordPress. The UI was famously redesigned earlier this year by Happy Cog studios, who applied a rigorous information architecture along with a highly readable visual style. So why redesign now?

Well, it appears that users didn’t like the way the dashboard used screen real estate. While the WordPress team doesn’t describe what the users complained about, the key navigation options are currently along the top, and I would guess that users who have widescreen monitors are pointing out that horizontal screen real estate is less precious than vertical. So the team has created a survey to get user feedback about some design options.

This is a tricky task, and it could have been made a little easier by some better user requirements gathering. For instance, what the team is fundamentally trying to do in identifying top-level command categories is classically served by “card sorting,” a classic usability design exercise. They might get better feedback by doing a card-sort study, either offline or with a software package like WebSort.

Second, the presentation of the choices doesn’t include a control. It assumes that all users prefer the vertical menu and presents variations on that option. Adding an option for the existing horizontal menu might present some valuable information on how users feel about the existing option.

My opinion may be tainted by my personal preferences; I’m one who finds the current administrative interface design preferable to what I’ve seen so far of the new direction. But regardless of my personal feelings, there’s something to be said for rigorous user centered design in determining the next direction.

Grab bag: bank disaster, elections, BusinessWeek hacked

Meta campaigning: what to do when the other guy won’t talk straight

American representative democracy is based on some non-intuitive principles–that we the people should care enough about how we are governed that we develop an informed opinion on it, that power is best when dispersed and checked–and on some non-obvious assumptions. The one assumption that is absolutely key is that the people will have access to enough information on the candidates to make an informed decision.

This election is testing that assumption. With one side, we had a bitterly fought primary that lasted almost eighteen months and went right down to the wire, a candidate who has written two books and multiple detailed position papers about his views and policy proposals, who has said all along that he wanted to get above politics as usual to address core issues. On the other side, we have a ticket that has played fast and loose with the truth about themselves, particularly about Palin, and about their opponent. In this environment, there’s information asymmetry and the voter loses.

So how do you get back to the point where a balanced and fair exchange of views is possible? Well, maybe you run an ad that calls the other candidate on the lies he’s been telling, and you do it by summing up all the independent press coverage across the political spectrum that’s been written about it. An ad something like this:

Will it move the base, who are hoping against hope that McCain and Palin, against all odds, will actually embody the small government principles they want to see in Washington? I don’t know. I just hope it moves some independent voters. But I’m happy to see the campaign going on the attack about this.

Grab bag: Weekend election roundup, and shellfish

links for 2008-09-12

Are respectful conversations about politics still possible?

I got an email forward from a relative today pointing to a pair of YouTube clips, one a part of a Barack Obama speech about sex ed, one an anti-abortion film, that included the tag line:

This is what’s going on in America.  This truth will make you bawl, and hopefully this truth will help everyone to see Obama for who he really is.
For those of you who are pro-choice, this presses in the reality of abortion.  Leaving a baby out to die and killing a baby in it’s mother’s womb are exactly the same. …

I watched the YouTube clips, and then did some research. And I decided that I didn’t want to just let this particular misrepresentation of Obama’s character stand. So I responded:

Thanks for forwarding.

I find it hard to imagine how the clip of Obama’s speech supports your email.

His speech is about teaching kids about abstinence, the seriousness of sex, STDs, AND contraception as part of a balanced program to make sure that they can make educated decisions about how to live their lives. (And the clip is taken out of the context of a larger speech; elsewhere he discusses the need to make sure that the mix of information is “age appropriate.”) I think that in this day and age that’s a responsible position.

Regarding the other clip, I’m not sure how Alan Keyes, a non-Illinois resident whom Obama defeated handily in his US senate race, is a reliable witness to Obama’s feelings about abortion.

I also don’t think you should casually dismiss Jill Stanek’s description of why Obama voted against the bill in question: he stated that the abortion practice described was already illegal under Illinois state law, and that the bill he voted down would have imperiled other abortion rights.

Finally, if you are going to listen to these clips, you should also be aware of Jill Stanek’s other beliefs, such as her belief that domestic violence is justified against women that have abortions, and that condom use in Tanzania should be discouraged. Furthermore, her most inflammatory allegation, that babies who were born despite attempted abortions were left to die in the Illinois hospital where she works, has never been substantiated:


I think we all should be listening to ALL sides and all voices during this election, and learn to recognize when we are being presented with an argument that deliberately distorts or excludes facts that might make the case weaker. This is our responsibility as American citizens: not to take everything that is presented to us as unquestioned truth, but to seek out other opinions and make up our own minds. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to hear some opinions I had not heard before; it prompted me to do my own research and come to my own conclusions.

For me, this is the key question: why do people accept what they get handed as already-formed opinions? Both sides do it: clearly Palin isn’t a complete monster, and clearly Barack Obama isn’t a baby-eating Muslim terrorist. But it astonishes me how little independent research it takes to knock some of the claims down.

I think that this is what’s killing politics in the US right now, and it’s the same thing that John Stewart said to the hosts of Crossfire: unquestioning repeating of talking points hurts democracy. It strikes it at its core. Our founding fathers believed that the people were capable of governing themselves, and some, like Thomas Jefferson, took the logical next step of planning education systems that would turn out people who could participate in government as informed parties.

But making a meaningful decision, even having a conversation, becomes impossible when we  agree to take our opinions via subscription, and won’t do the fact checking to confirm or deny what we’re being told.

In that spirit, I have to thank my friend Jeff Hawkins for a pointer to a list of debunked Palin rumors. I don’t agree with the list’s take on TrooperGate, and I notice that it doesn’t attempt to deny the thoroughly debunked claim that Palin stood against the federal funding of the Bridge to Nowhere, but I appreciate the reintroduction of a little balance in the debate. Cause here’s the thing: Sarah Palin doesn’t have to be a five-college dropout, or married to a guy who once had a DUI, or support shooting wolves from the air (though I’m a little concerned about the last one), for me to be concerned about her as a candidate. And I base that concern on her belief that our invasion of Iraq was “God’s will,” that we should go to war with Russia, the world’s only other nuclear superpower; over her ignorance of foreign policy–not even able to describe the Bush Doctrine!, and over what appears to be a very real abuse of power in the matter of the firing of her ex-brother-in-law’s boss.

And when I look at her in that light, I’m very concerned about her running mate’s judgment as well. And that’s the basis that’s driving my vote: my evaluation of the judgment and character of the person who’s going to be in the office and have his finger on the button.

Number Three on Flight Eleven

The anniversary of that day always is touchy for me, even seven years in, and society-wide we seem to have a certain ambivalence about the observation. We have public dedications of memorials and moments of silence, but the moments of silence are filled with business as usual and we see the dedications on TV as we go about our daily activities. But our lives are changed nonetheless–by the friend who lost a husband, by the loss of security we all share, by the massive gravitational pull of that awful day that irrevocably altered our trajectory as a nation toward preemptive war and devaluation of civil liberties.

I wasn’t planning to write an observance at all, actually. As I wrote in 2003, I prefer to let others do the remembrance, while I “do my part by asking questions about actions taken in the names of the fallen that I believe do them no honor.” Being a citizen is still the best way, in my opinion, to honor the dead and fight those who led the attacks.

Which leads me to the reason I am writing: Steinski’s sound collage “Number Three on Flight Eleven.” A previously unreleased track collected this year on the veteran mix artist’s retrospective “What Does It All Mean?”, it takes the recorded phone call of American Airlines flight attendant Betty Ong from on board Flight 11 and sets it sparingly above an almost subliminally ominous drone and beat, and in counterpoint to another speaking voice reciting lyrics by Paul Opperman from the Silos’ “When the Telephone Rings” and poems by Basho. It’s an unsettling, frightening track and I can’t listen to it more than once in a blue moon. And yet, there’s something in the end that carries a note of redemption: a repeating coda, the voice of the American Airlines call center reassuring Betty Ong, who’s holding on the line communicating the last moments aboard the hijacked plane, repeating “Yes. We’re still here.”

We’re still here.

As John Irving, another student of violence, would have put it in The Hotel New Hampshire, the real question in this violent crime is: did they get the us in us? Did the attack violate us so deeply that it touched our core and twisted who we were? Or are we still here?

I can’t find the link, but recently read a piece by someone who was in New York when the attacks happened but didn’t own a television. When he tried to describe to people outside New York what was going on–that  people seemed to be bearing up and keeping a stiff upper lip–based on what he observed in the streets, they didn’t believe him, because everyone else was scarred from watching the wounding coverage on TV over and over again. We were, in his assessment, traumatized as a nation by watching the attack so closely, and we need to acknowledge that to move on.

Yes. We’re still here.

Genius take II: indeed.

After last night’s disaster, I decided to give iTunes 8 another try. This time I made sure my library settings were correct in advance, and let it collect and submit the information while I ate dinner. No spinning beachball, no issues, this time around. 

So, Genius. I’m not evaluating the sidebar right now (though I will note that the message that appears when Genius can’t find any recommendations in the store is a pretty good predictor of whether the Genius playlist feature will work. And you know what? It does work, quite well.

The feature in a nutshell is a little like an old bar game: pick a song, then identify a bunch of other songs that go with it. All the songs are pulled from your library and you can vary the length of the playlist, and save it into your library if you choose. Pretty simple. So I decided to throw it some curves. First, “Nuki Suki” by Little Richard. It took this slightly profane funk gem from the master and mixed it with “Sexy MF,” “There Was a Time,” “Baby I Love You,” “The Hook and Sling” by Eddie Bo, “Up for the Down Stroke,” and Marvin Gaye’s “You Sure Love to Ball.” There were a few clinkers as well, like Ready for the World’s “Oh Sheila,” but at least everything was in the ballpark. 

So I tried something a little different: a movement from “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” by Gavin Bryars, from the recording with Tom Waits on vocals. What came back seemed to be mostly related to Tom Waits rather than Gavin Bryars: tracks from Waits, Smog, the Black Keys, the Cocteau Twins, Cat Power, and so on. So I tried another Bryars track but Genius couldn’t find matches. Also matchless: tracks from the Virginia Glee Club and the Virginia Gentlemen, probably because they aren’t available in the iTunes Store. But mixes around Hilliard Ensemble, Pink Floyd, Jane Siberry, Steinski, Jeff Buckley, and Neko Case were all pretty solid.

So I think those of us that like genre-busting mixes and unusual juxtapositions are probably safe: Genius doesn’t automate what we do just yet. But for a good 25 song groove it’s not bad, and for most people it will handily replace Shuffle as a way to plumb the depths of their library.

iTunes 8: first impressions

I installed iTunes 8 last night on my home machine, a MacBook Pro with 2 GB of RAM. The update wasn’t in Software Update, so I pulled it off Apple’s website. Then I had to update to get the latest QuickTime, begging the question of why they aren’t packaged together. But that was straightforward enough. Then I rebooted and fired up iTunes.

First it wanted to update all my album art–I suppose to build new thumbnails for the new grid view. When it finished looking at my 26,000 song library in five minutes I was suspicious. Sure enough: it had forgotten that my music lived on a network drive and silently reset the location to my laptop hard drive, causing all the songs in the library to be unplayable. Fortunately I’ve been through this before: Preferences, Advanced, and set the correct location for the folder, then wait fifteen minutes while all the song paths are reset. But man: I was really hoping Apple had fixed this one. I don’t restart iTunes often, but when I do I have to go through this dance more than half the time.

But OK: so far no worse than the old version.

The new grid view seemed nice enough, until I clicked something. Then it locked up tighter than a drum with a spinning beachball. About five minutes later the beachball cleared and I was able to play some music. I found of interesting that the grid view was only present some of the time. If I clicked through on the Jazz genre, it brought up the classic view of tracks next to album art. Maybe this was because of the number of albums (330) in the genre, but I found it a little disorienting.

Then: Genius. I don’t know if I would have called the feature that, since it has to upload the entire library to the cloud before it can work. I let it run for awhile but it wasn’t long before the spinning beach ball returned. I finally killed iTunes but it managed to keep any other application, including QuickTime, from playing any sound until I rebooted.

And when I rebooted, iTunes forgot where the music library was again.

I think Genius has promise–it came up with some interesting recommendations on my work computer. But that only has thirty songs on it. I have a suspicion that it doesn’t scale. At all.

links for 2008-09-09

New iPods, new iTunes. It must be September

Apple’s really changed as a company; I remember when September was Back to School month and you’d find out about new iMacs, a new version of iLife, whatever. Now it’s all iTunes and iPod.

I like the look of the new iPod nano, and the price point ($150 for 8 GB) and form factor are sweet. But I’m particularly impressed with the software and the use of an accelerometer in what is basically a low end device. CoverFlow is a killer interface, especially in a small device, and seeing it on the nano is pretty sweet.

I’m keen to see whether the new “genius” features in iTunes scale up to my 26,000 song music collection. Hopefully by the time I’m home tonight, iTunes 8 will be downloadable (it’s still 7.7 from where I sit right now).

But I think my favorite visual from today’s event was this one:

Keeping on top of things

Our weekly moment of reflection, courtesy Harpers:

The Treasury Department seized control of mortgage and loan giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, firing the companies’ chief executives and promising to provide as much as $200 billion to prevent insolvency. The jobless rate rose from 5.7 percent to a five-year high of 6.1 percent, with more than 84,000 jobs lost in August, and Senator John McCain accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency. “This campaign is not about issues,” said McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis. “This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.”

Yes. Heaven knows we wouldn’t want to make the election about issues. Like the mortgage crisis or the jobless rate. Good to see the McCain campaign has its finger on the pulse.

Vote suppression, accidentally or on purpose

NYTimes: Voter Registration by Students Raises Cloud of Consequences – NYTimes.com. See also Cavalier Daily, Voter registration code raises concerns (temporarily dead link, use the PDF version). Brief version: two bulletins from the registrar of elections for Montgomery County in Virginia advised students, incorrectly, that registering to vote in Virginia could cost them scholarship money, insurance coverage, and could cost their parents through loss of dependent status.

Bureaucratic foulup, or deliberate suppression?

One would think that the registrar of elections would be interested in facilitating voter turnout.

There’s a little bit of a blog kerfluffle about this right now–seems Jon Taplin reported it as a Republican suppression effort, but there’s no evidence that the registrar, Randall Wertz, is partisan. But the sort of consequences for registering to vote are pretty typical vote-suppression claims, and Wertz seems proud of the eight students who called to withdraw their applications.

So it could go either way, but it seems to me that we should be encouraging Montgomery County to register more students.