Deprecated: Assigning the return value of new by reference is deprecated in /nfs/c03/h01/mnt/52932/domains/ on line 472

Deprecated: Assigning the return value of new by reference is deprecated in /nfs/c03/h01/mnt/52932/domains/ on line 487

Deprecated: Assigning the return value of new by reference is deprecated in /nfs/c03/h01/mnt/52932/domains/ on line 494

Deprecated: Assigning the return value of new by reference is deprecated in /nfs/c03/h01/mnt/52932/domains/ on line 530

Deprecated: Assigning the return value of new by reference is deprecated in /nfs/c03/h01/mnt/52932/domains/ on line 103

Deprecated: Assigning the return value of new by reference is deprecated in /nfs/c03/h01/mnt/52932/domains/ on line 21

Deprecated: Assigning the return value of new by reference is deprecated in /nfs/c03/h01/mnt/52932/domains/ on line 623

Warning: Cannot modify header information - headers already sent by (output started at /nfs/c03/h01/mnt/52932/domains/ in /nfs/c03/h01/mnt/52932/domains/ on line 8 nerd nouveau Tue, 26 Feb 2008 22:18:03 +0000 en This blog is retired! Mon, 25 Feb 2008 01:24:37 +0000 georg Obviously, I haven’t updated this blog in quite a while. I have to admit that I just couldn’t keep up with my self-imposed goal to regularly (read: at least twice a week) post long articles. Unfortunately, this fixation on long, detailed articles is so much reflected by the setup I’ve been using that I just couldn’t get myself to switch to a more relaxed style of (tumble) blogging.

WordPress, this gigantic behemoth of a blogging engine, my theme with its small text size that makes short articles look tiny and weird and the difficulty with which you have to post a simple link, photo or quote, despite the abundance of WordPress plugins out there, all of that somewhat ruined my interest into this blog.

Fortunately, I recently found the incredibly slick tumbleblogging engine Chyrp, which has given me new motivation to set up a blog that is more in line with what I want to do.

My new Chyrp-powered blog is A little bit of additional info about this switch can be found in my first post.

Please be sure to update your bookmarks, point your feed readers to the new feed and say goodbye to the old times…

That’s it, this blog won’t be updated anymore. All the action will happen at from now on Don’t miss out on it!

A new lawsuit source for the RIAA Sun, 18 Nov 2007 17:16:30 +0000 georg Dear RIAA,

Over the past few years, I couldn’t help but notice your subtle steps against evildoers who violate the fair-use policies that you are so graciously granting to us. I completely agree that the use of illegal technologies such as file-sharing and wireless lan has to be dealt with elegantly and swiftly. So far, I have been especially impressed by the great amount of sensibility and sensitivity that your lawyers have exhibited in their struggle against the violation of our copyright laws.

While I was thrilled to hear of your recent success in court, the image of the starving artists I’m sure you are distributing your small monetary compensation amongst warming my heart, there are some clouds on the horizon: The evildoers are working on new file-sharing protocols that might make tracking down the vermin who use them much harder for your internet experts. There also seems to be a shift from illegal music downloads to movie downloads, making it harder and harder to find evildoers to sue for a little compensation. While I understand that you cannot live off producing good music alone, I have a suggestion to make for a new lawsuit source to tap into.

Leaky headphones. Have you never been on the bus, suddenly hearing music coming from the headphones of the guy sitting next to you? I have to admit that this has recently happened to me again. I feel sorry and ashamed to admit that I did not own the rights to the music I was exposed to from this person’s leaky headphones. Therefore, I’m making this proposal as a slight compensation for my wrong-doing (since I was talking on the cellphone at the time, I couldn’t cover my ears. I know that this is a bad excuse, but I was so shocked by the sudden perception of music I have no license to that I basically froze in terror). Please consider my idea and make some money off it so that I can finally look at myself in the mirror again.

Considering you already made the humble sum of $222,000 for 24 downloaded songs, just think of what you could make by suing somebody who is commuting to work every day for an hour with their leaky headphones, giving away your music to unsuspecting bystanders who do not own the rights to it! If the average length of a song is assumed to be 5 minutes, that’s $111,000 per day or $40,515,000 per year. And all that just from a single person! If you think of the millions of commuters all around the world, I hope you can see the same potential that I am seeing. You do not even have to stop at the people using these leaky headphones, just go for the bystanders who do not cover their ears as well as the manufacturers of the headphones.

I understand that your extremely competent technology partners will come up with a good solution to the leaky headphone problem in the long-term. May I suggest the development of a secure digital plug that can be implanted into your customers’ skull, circumventing the need for the potentially illegal consumption of music through our ears. Given your impressive record of technological competence regarding digital rights management over the past few years, I am sure that nobody would be afraid of having your technology implanted into their brain.

I hope you will consider my suggestion. After all, I am an ardent supporter of your noble goals…

Amazon & iTunes, please cooperate! Mon, 29 Oct 2007 00:35:23 +0000 georg iTunes and Amazon

When the iTunes Music Store was first announced, I was pretty sure the reason why I could never get myself to actually buy tracks was the use of DRM to restrict playback to iPods and authorized computers. However, when iTunes Plus came along, I still didn’t find myself buying music on iTunes. I’m sorry, I just need the haptics of the actual “holding a record in my hand” experience.

I believe that the iTunes Store is exceptionally well designed. You can easily lose yourself browsing through different genres, clicking your way from artist to artist and listening to the free preview snippets on the way. It’s fun, it helps you to discover new artists and albums, it’s hard to resist the impulse to buy. Still, I always find myself going to Amazon and ordering the albums there. Isn’t that almost a bit unfair, using iTunes’ clever store application to discover albums, but then buying them on Amazon? Maybe it is…

Looking at my “record buying workflow”, I’m craving for a cooperation between iTunes and Amazon. My current “buying music on the internet” process is somewhat like this:

  • Specifically searching for an album on iTunes or just browsing aimlessly to discover new stuff
  • Listening to the free previews on iTunes
  • Jotting down which albums I want to buy
  • Buying these albums on Amazon
  • Waiting for the delivery
  • Ripping the CDs into iTunes to listen to them on the computer or the iPod
  • Occasionally listening to the CDs in regular CD players

Obviously, I still want my music in digital format as well as on a plain, old-school CDs. Right now, that means I have to buy on Amazon, no matter how good iTunes’ user experience is and how well it’s serving me to discover new music or test-listen to music I’m interested in. I use iTunes’ bandwidth, but I never but anything. On the other hand, it’s also annoying to wait for Amazon to deliver the goods, especially if the item is not available for 24-hour checkout (which will often happen if your taste is not too close to the mainstream).

So, dear iTunes and dear Amazon, why not cooperate? Wouldn’t it be awesome to buy an album on iTunes, download it immediately and receive the same album on CD from Amazon a few days later? The outcome would be exactly the same for me (i.e. the consumer): I’d still have the music both in iTunes and on CD, but the annoying waiting time for the delivery would be alleviated by having the music available as a download right away!

I believe that both iTunes and Amazon would benefit from such a partnership: While iTunes obviously benefits from actually getting purchases from people that want CDs rather than just a digital copy, Amazon would still benefit from a certain halo effect: Oh, since I’m already having these orders for CDs out, why not add a book or two to save on shipping costs? Additionally, think about all the people that are currently iTunes customers, but would still like to have a physical CD together with their digital download. After all, CDs come with additional artwork, the haptic experience and can be seen as an implicit backup of your music as well. I’m sure there’s quite a large group of people that would be interested!

Obviously, there’ll be the need for such a combo-package to be a bit more expensive than buying just a digital download or just the physical media: There’s bandwidth and shipping to pay, as well as the actual physical CD, and both Apple and Amazon will like to get their cut. However, we know that both bandwidth and the physical CD are ridiculously cheap these days. How about a price premium of no more than $5? Well, personally, I’d even be willing to pay more than that! It would simply be an awesome service! Remember, not only do I get the music right away and the physical medium later, it also saves me the time to actually rip the physical CD into iTunes…

Is such a cooperation coming? Probably not. I’m sure there are lots of strategical issues to consider both on Apple’s and Amazon’s side. Also, those two companies haven’t worked together in the past. It most likely won’t happen. Nevertheless, I believe this could be a lucrative service for both companies. Maybe, just maybe, iTunes will introduce a “digital download + physical medium” service some time in the future, provided Apple is not too proud to admit that digital downloads do not replace the experience of physical media for everybody. I truly hope they will…

Can you hear me on Skype? Thu, 18 Oct 2007 11:55:40 +0000 georg I’m by far not a heavy Skyper, but there’s one thing I’ve noticed during my occasional Skype calls to people I know or don’t know: Almost every call I’ve participated in so far started with something along the lines of “Hey, can you hear me? Is it working?”.

Now I think this is somewhat interesting, considering that nobody would ever say something like this on an ordinary landline call. Even on the cellphone, you wouldn’t ask unless you actually got the feeling that either you or the other party has bad reception: It’s definitely not a thing you would start your call with.

It makes sense, though: Have you actually ever been on a landline call where the other party couldn’t hear you (or vice versa)? Didn’t think so. It’s a little bit different with cellphone calls, since we all know they can be flaky sometimes. However, we’re still more inclined to believe they should work (coverage is generally good) rather than not work. We wouldn’t ask the other party to confirm that they can hear us unless their behavior gives us a reason to doubt it.

Skype, though, suffers from two issues in this respect: It’s a black box and has a lot of potential for failure.

It’s a black box because we don’t know how it works. Well, as technologists, we know it has something to do with P2P, we can even sniff some packets (although Skype traffic is encrypted), but the average user is completely unaware of this. Therefore, they expect it to work like a landline phone (which it mimics in so many ways). Landline phones never fail us, though, so it only takes one or two stalled or otherwise broken calls to severely shatter our trust in it. If our landline fails a few times, we call technical support because we know this shouldn’t happen, on Skype, we kinda accept it (remember, we’re used to applications crashing, computers needing an OS reinstall and all that other little headaches), but we lose our trust in it. It’s a landline that doesn’t work like a landline. It’s a black box that sometimes doesn’t do what we want it to.

Potential for failure is also given on so many layers: Skype itself could crash, the computer it’s running on could crash, either we or the other party could have connected their headset the wrong way, the audio settings might be messed up, our network connection might stall or be overloaded, etc. etc… Landlines never crash, though. You don’t need to set them up yourself either. And they don’t get congested. Most users are aware of all these potential issues, and it’s not exactly increasing their trust in the application. I’m feeling pretty sure most people wouldn’t have a problem “setting up” a landline call. But a Skype call, not so much!

Summarizing it, Skype is a good example of a “gadget vs. all-purpose device” dilemma. Gadgets are expected to “just work”. They are highly specialized, but rock-solid, like a CD player (when has your CD player ever crashed or needed you to flush its preference files?). “All-purpose devices”, on the other hand, are not specialized and therefore not as well-tested either. They are error prone, and we accept that. Simplified: Reinstalling Skype on your computer is an acceptable troubleshooting solution, reinstalling the firmware on your landline phone is not. We expect the landline to “just work”, but we only hope that Skype “just works”. It’s a difference.

So, don’t feel alone if you’re not yet ready to ditch your landline for Skype. You didn’t ditch your old fashioned TV for a “computer plus TV card” solution either, did you?

Using an external iSight on a Windows notebook Thu, 11 Oct 2007 21:57:25 +0000 georg One of the classes I need to take this year requires us to use a Windows-only (evil!) augmented reality framework, Microsoft’s Visual Studio 2005 (more evil!) and a webcam. For the first time during my studies, I’m actually forced to use Windows. But even worse, how could I get my iSight to work with it?

Fortunately, the iSight is a standard IEEE1394 (a.k.a. FireWire) camera that works without a third-party driver on Windows. However, what complicates things is that the cheap, old Toshiba laptop I could borrow does not have a full-blown, 6-pin FireWire connector like Macs do, but the small 4-pin connector that Sony has termed “i.Link”. The problem is that the small connector misses the power line, meaning that when the iSight camera is connected to it, it doesn’t receive any power and thusly doesn’t work. The solution would be to connect the iSight to a powered FireWire hub that is in turn connected to the PC, but who the heck has a FireWire hub?!

Well, after a bit of uninhibited swearing (remember, I’ve already spent most of the day fussing around with the joys of Windows), it dawned to me: Apple’s Cinema displays have a FireWire hub built-in anyways! So here’s a guide for the Mac owner to get an external iSight to run on a Windows notebook with a 4-pin FireWire connector (if your PC has a 6-pin FireWire connector, you can connect the iSight to it directly).

First, make sure you have the necessary parts ready.

  • The external iSight camera
  • An Apple Cinema display
  • A 6-pin to 6-pin FireWire cable (comes with the iSight)
  • A 4-pin to 6-pin FireWire cable

The most difficult thing to find will be the 4-pin to 6-pin FireWire wire. However, those come with many external hard drives, so with a bit of luck, you might have an unused one lying around somewhere.

Finally, hook everything up like this:

  1. Connect the FireWire cable coming from the Cinema Display (the one that is bundled with the power and USB cable of the display) into a Mac that is connected to a wall outlet, but turned off.
  2. Connect the Windows PC to one FireWire jack on the Cinema Display, using the 4-pin to 6-pin cable.
  3. Connect the iSight to the other FireWire jack on the Cinema Display, using the 6-pin to 6-pin cable.

After following these steps, the PC will recognize the iSight as a generic FireWire camera (it will also show up as an “Apple iSight”, but this entry is shown as “Not working” in the device manager. That doesn’t matter, though.)

You can use the iSight camera (not the built-in microphone, though) with most Windows applications now, but the image will be greatly overexposed. Fortunately, this thread pointed me towards a program that can be used to adjust the exposure to a sensible level. It is available here:

Don’t worry about the program being a time-limited trial version. Once you have adjusted the exposure, Windows appears to save the settings, so you won’t have to run the program again.

Finally, I’ve got a working “iSight on Windows XP with a 4-pin FireWire connector” setup without the need to buy an otherwise useless FireWire hub. Sweet!

Let me rephrase, though, that the Mac powering the Cinema Display’s hub must be turned off, not running. Sleeping should work, too. Otherwise, the Mac’s iSight driver hogs the camera, so the Windows driver can’t access it. It may be possible to force the Mac’s iSight driver to unload, but I haven’t toyed around with that.

My current setup is my sleeping PowerBook powering the Cinema Display’s FireWire hub, while I’m working on the Windows notebook via VNC from my Powermac (so that I’m not forced into Visual C++’s horrible IDE, but can use TextMate). Ah, I already love that lecture…

Why Leopard should be Windows Thu, 04 Oct 2007 21:57:51 +0000 georg Hah, that title got your attention, right? Don’t worry, though, I’m not going on a technology-bashing rampage here, I’m just referring to the marketing name: “Windows” would fit Apple’s current software naming scheme so much better than “Mac OS 10.5″ or “Leopard” does.

For quite a while now, Apple has given its consumer software names that refer to the principal concept in a metaphorical way. For example, their word processor is called “Pages”, since the concept of a page is the most fundamental one in a text processing application (Writing makes us think of books, newspapers, print in general, and that’s why the concept of a page is a fundamental one). Similarly, we have “Numbers” now, “Spaces” is coming in Leopard, and iLife applications like “iPhoto” or “iMovie” basically follow a similar line of thought.

Now, “OS 10.5″, however, is a technical term. OS stands for “operating system”, clearly a term not targeted at consumers, but developers. Conceptually, it’s like “Pages” being called “Word Processor” instead, or “iPhoto” the “Digital Image Asset Organizer”.

“Windows”, on the other hand, would fit into this naming scheme perfectly: Isn’t a “window” the fundamental metaphor of a graphical user interface? They are not called “WIMP” for nothing! After all, each of the programs we’re working with is represented by at least one window. To me, it’s intuitively clear that the name “Windows” follows exactly the same line of thought that “Pages” and “Numbers” do.

Of course, given the tradition of the “Mac OS” naming convention, I don’t see it being renamed anytime soon (and I’m happy about that). Still, it’s somewhat funny to see how much Microsoft’s flagship product would fit into Apple’s current naming convention. Kinda.

Categories ruined my blog Mon, 01 Oct 2007 22:19:54 +0000 georg Yes. They really did. See, there’s a lot that made me not update my blog since July 25, for more than 2 months: Another vacation (this time longer - it was great!), lots and lots of work before that, traditional writer’s block and, well, those darned categories.

Fortunately, Wordpress 2.3 comes to the rescue at just the right time, introducing its shiny new “native tagging support”! As you can see, I’ve already eagerly updated my blog theme, ditching categories completely in favor of tags. Oh, and instead of a “Links” page (which, frankly, I never really used), there’s a tag cloud now.

I know it sounds weird to feel so harshly about categories while getting all excited about tags. After all, they’re basically the same thing. At least technically. Both are keywords you assign to your posts. Most explanations about their differences are completely superficial: There’s the “you usually have much fewer categories than tags” crowd, the “categories are abstract, tags are concrete” crowd or the “categories are long, tags are short” crowd. Here’s a good run-down of such observations.

There’s no technical difference. There’s a lot of conceptual differences, though. However, the one that personally strikes me as most important is this: Categories precede posts, tags come after posts.

When you categorize a post, you look at the categories you already have, those that define the main scope of your blog. Then you pick the one (or maybe few) that fit the post best. If none fit, you either create a new one or ditch the post. As such, categories are limiting. This can be good if you want to stay on your self-imposed topic; Bad, if you rather want to write with only a loose connection between your posts, which, incidentally, is what keeping a personal blog is all about.

Now tags, on the other hand, come after the post. You may reread what you have written, and then go “oh, that’s gonna be tagged with web, design, ajax and javascript”. You don’t come up with the tags first and tailor a post around them.

As such, grouping by categories is self-imposed, grouping by tags is organic: You don’t envision your tag cloud first and tailor your blog to fit it, but the tag cloud grows depending on what you write. And this, to my mind, is the awesome thing about them: Organization that is not imposed, but grows by itself, reflecting my writing interests. Now this is how I envision a personal blog. It’s how I envision my blog.

Consequently, no more categories for me. Really, it all started crumbling when I filed the first post in the “random” category. Just having had such a category in the first place is the perfect proof that categories just are not for me…

Reinventing the Web for the iPhone Tue, 24 Jul 2007 23:11:04 +0000 georg Since the much-anticipated iPhone launch last month we’ve seen a lot of websites crop up that are specifically designed for Apple’s shiny new gadget. High-profile sites such as or 37signals’ free Ta-Da List have gotten the iPhone treatment. Even Google (or one of their iPhone-wielding employees on their 20%-rule day) has been working on an iPhone-specific search interface. On the developer front, there are already some tips on how to create iPhone-optimized versions of WordPress themes, and the first CSS/Javascript frameworks to easily provide the iPhone experience have been released.

As many people have noted, this is quite interesting, since with the advent of web standards, designing specifically for certain browsers or serving different stylesheets to different browsers has been rather seen as something to avoid. Now suddenly, everybody is pumping out iPhone-specific sites.

To be honest, most of these efforts are very much in line with what Apple suggests in their “Web Development for iPhone” guide: Paying attention to web standards to ensure that the content is available to desktop browsers as well, but serving a specialized stylesheet for the iPhone.

Then again, David Storey has been critiquing the iPhone for not supporting media queries in which it would identify itself as “handheld”, causing other handheld internet devices not to profit from the streamlined design for the iPhone. Conversely, Opera has specifically introduced the “TV” media type when creating the Wii Browser, so that other browsers using a TV as their means of display could benefit from Wii-specific website designs as well.

Upon first noticing the trend for designing specifically for the iPhone (often basically reinventing the site, for example in the case of Digg, where the iPhone-version is a whole lot different from the desktop one), I tended to agree with the folks disliking the idea of creating a specific version just for the iPhone. I like standards, too, and generally dislike the idea of designing for a specific browser version, let alone for a specific browser version on a specific device. But the more I think about it, the more I understand the reasoning behind these efforts.

First, I understand why Apple refuses to let the iPhone support the “handheld” media query: After all, “handheld” internet has (unfortunately) often been associated with a watered-down, crappy version of the internet. The iPhone, on the other hand, wants to provide the “real” internet. I can see that Apple doesn’t want its iPhone to load a badly designed mobile version of a random website that has not been designed specifically for the iPhone’s advanced browser and high resolution screen. In that case, just displaying a scaled-down variant of the desktop version is preferable. Of course it would be nice if other handheld devices could benefit from websites that get a mobile version now because of the iPhone release, but the inverse case is more likely: That the iPhone would have suffered from badly designed, stripped-down mobile versions that are already out in the wild. Badly designed because almost nobody has used them until now.

Second, the iPhone is not a desktop. A website (and its user experience) can greatly benefit from a specific design when viewed on the iPhone. After all, there are many constraints such as screen-size and slow EDGE data rates that do not apply to desktop versions, but become relevant for the iPhone. Just swapping the stylesheet for an iPhone version is a convenient, simple and, most importantly, non-hacky way of providing for a better user experience on the device, without having to explicitly ask for a generic “handheld” variant. It may not seem to be elegant at the first glance because we quickly associate the serving of browser-specific stylesheets with Internet Explorer incompatibilities and the such, but in this case, it’s something else. It’s not just about different browsers, it’s not even only about different devices, it’s about different paradigms. The browsing experience on the iPhone differs so vastly from other devices in the context of its overall user experience that I think it’s perfectly warranted to provide a special website version for it.

Of course, we’ll have to wait a bit to see if this is just an short-lived fad fueled by Apple’s ingenious pre-launch hype (since the adoption rate isn’t as high yet as some analysts have predicted). The iPhone isn’t even available outside of the USA yet.

However, what remains true is that a unified, “standardized” version of a website, a piece of software or a generic interface is not always preferable over specialization. Browsing on a desktop with mouse and keyboard is different than browsing on a handheld device with a stylus. Browsing on the iPhone’s scalable, multi-touch controlled Safari version is different than browsing on an ordinary handheld that mostly mimics the desktop. So is browsing on the TV set with a Wii. The more ubiquitous web browsing will become, the more we have to distance ourselves from the “one site for all” idea that we’ve excitedly embraced with the advent of web standards. It’s not about being non-compliant with the standards, it’s about creating different experiences while adhering to the standards. And if we don’t want to resort to ugly hacks, there’s no better way than creating different stylesheets (or even whole front-ends) for different devices. After all, we want our users to access the same content on any device they wish, but we should not force them to adhere to the one usage paradigm that we prefer. Even if there’s already a “handheld” media type available, there are so many different ways a “handheld” device’s UI can be designed that this becomes an inappropriate generalization. There’s no way you can compare the low resolution, clunky Opera experience on a GPRS-enabled Razr with the iPhone, for example.

No matter how the iPhone will establish itself on the market in the long run, I think it has already started to give the mobile web a well-needed awareness boost. If more developers continue to create high-quality mobile versions of their sites for the iPhone, other mobile browsers will benefit in the long run, too. And who knows, if the most often crappy, generic mobile websites get replaced by well-crafted iPhone-specific versions, then Apple may very well decide to let the iPhone support the “handheld” media query in the future, or, even better, create a new one that other manufacturers could use, too, one that takes the iPhone’s multi-touch capabilities and high-resolution, scalable screen into account. Other manufacturers are going to copy that soon, so its own media type wouldn’t be useless. Otherwise, we can at least be assured that developers are concentrating more on the mobile experience from now on, and even if that means a specific iPhone version and another one for the rest of mobile internet devices, we can still hope that the latter will benefit from the quality boost as well. Maybe all it needs is a bit more awareness that some people actually use the mobile internet?

Designing Against The Fear of Losing Assets Thu, 19 Jul 2007 21:40:28 +0000 georg Recently, after watching this excellent Scandinavian comedy skit on YouTube, I’ve been discussing about one of the references in it with a friend: The novice user’s fear of losing data.

In fact, we’re all afraid of losing our data. After all, that’s why we back up our data religiously (you do backup your data, right?). But what we were addressing in our discussion is not the fear of losing data through a hard drive failure or another technical issue, but the fear of losing it through one’s own inexperience or maybe even stupidity. It’s the fear of clicking the wrong button at the wrong time. But from our perspective as software designers, how can we alleviate this fear?

First, we need to understand where this fear is coming from. Way too often, we’re tempted to dismiss it as being rooted in the inexperience with a certain piece of software, like your stereotypical mom being afraid that her perfectly crafted Word document is lost as soon as the window closes. On a closer look, however, we come to the realization that this fear is neither constrained to software usage alone, nor solely caused by inexperience.

  • There’s a general fear of loss due to “usage” errors: For example, much like some of my friends were initially afraid to lose their precious holiday snapshots after an iPhoto import because they are not specifically prompted to save them, I was afraid to lose money during my first stock purchase (through hidden fees, buying the wrong stock due to a wrong ticker symbol, accidentally sending a market order instead of a limit order, etc…). Similarly, we’re afraid to ditch our potentially safe day-jobs for an entrepreneurial venture because we’re afraid to lose money in the long run. Or we’re afraid to “lose” a beloved gadget due to a wrong button pressed (for example, bricking it during a firmware upgrade).
  • The fear does not come from inexperience, but from the mental model of the process: While a novice user has a black-box mental model of a piece of software and thusly doesn’t have a concept of how said software is protecting their data, an experienced user might suffer from the same fear just because they know how the software is handling the data: For example, a novice iPhoto user might be afraid to lose their photo descriptions because they have absolutely no idea of how iPhoto stores and protects them, whereas an experienced/geeky user might have exactly the same fear because they know that iPhoto uses a flat file for the archive information that could easily get corrupted, hence wiping out all meta-data.
  • Users are more afraid of losing data the more important it is: Sounds like a no-brainer: We’re more afraid to lose our almost-finished PhD thesis than the 5-line joke email we want to send to a buddy.
  • Data has different personal value for different people: It’s hard to quantify the “importance” of a piece of data from a particular user’s point of view. For example, while some people religiously save their old email, just for reference, but also for personal value (sometimes, it’s nice to revisit a long thread of emails that led to a beautiful relationship), other people couldn’t care less about their old email and are possibly even deleting it manually from time to time. This concept can be extended to any type of data.
  • Users are afraid to lose data because of their own mistakes, but will ultimately blame it on the software:
  • This is important to developers. While we initially fear to lose data due to our own mistakes, we blame it on the software as soon as it actually happens. Example: Tiger’s Safari 2 browser has the annoying “feature” of closing a window immediately when the red “close” button is clicked, no matter how many tabs are open in that window. Consequently, I’m afraid to accidentally click this button at the wrong time (my fault), but when it actually happens, my mood swings from “my fault” to “Safari’s fault” (why did it not warn me before closing the window!).

  • The more we trust the software system, the less we are afraid to lose data: Consequently, let’s abandon the notion of “experience” for “trust”. I’m not afraid to lose my photos when using iPhoto because I trust this particular piece of software: I have never had any trouble with it before, it comes from a reputable developer, it’s known to be well-tested, etc… Conversely, I do not trust MS Word (and thusly don’t use it). I’ve had gazillions of issues with it that have destroyed my trust.

But, considering that we are generally prone to be afraid of loss, how can we design software to minimize the fear of losing our data? The point is, we can’t. There are too many potential risks to our data, those that we are aware of (depending on our level of expertise) and those we are not. Then, there’s also the uncertainty of not knowing about a potential reason for data loss. We just can’t remove all the risks and build trust into data safety that does away with the fear of data loss: Everybody loses data once in a while, and that experience can be traumatizing, even if backups are readily available (we’re prone to getting tangled up in a “what-if” scenario about not having had those, or them being corrupted).

What we can do, however, is acknowledging this fear and trying to assure the user that we (as the provider of the software) are doing everything in our range of possibilities to keep their data safe, giving them the warm feeling that even if they or their computer mess up, we’re there to protect their data as well as we can. The point being that we’re aiming to reduce the fear, even though we cannot guarantee absolute safety for the data.

  • Take the fear seriously: At least some users are afraid to lose data, so it’s a good idea to acknowledge this. Mention various backup and redundancy strategies employed by your software in the help file or on the accompanying website. Don’t dismiss the fear in a patronizing way (”Your assets in our software are as safe as every other file on your computer”). At least make sure that you have thought about the problem during the software creation process and convey that to your users. Sometimes, users just wonder if the developer has thought about a certain usage scenario. If they know you have, they feel safer.
  • Don’t treat your data as being unimportant: Even if you’re just saving a command history or other data that you would personally consider to be ephemeral, it might be important to some users. Thusly, treat such data as being “important”, too.
  • Build trust: Even a simple cosmetic bug in your application reduces the level of trust a user has in your software, and ultimately in its data safety. For example, if your Mac application suffers from the “spinning beachball” often, this reduces trust. Even something as simple as a typo in a dialog window reduces the trust, as your software appears to be written with little diligence.
  • Don’t describe horror scenarios: It is not your concern to teach your users about hard disk crashes or exploding laptops. If you educate your users about the importance of backing up their data, do so by informing them of the positive effects of backups, rather than threatening them with horror scenarios: Say “A backup is useful to restore a previous copy of your data if you want to go back to an earlier state or in the case of a computer malfunction” rather than “Computers often suffer from dying hard disks, exploding batteries and other disastrous malfunctions. Make sure you have a backup ready or you will be screwed”.
  • If your software doesn’t have an explicit “Save” function, tell your users: For example, a user not familiar with the iTunes-esque “Library” concept may wonder how to save their photos after an import into iPhoto. They will be afraid to close the window until they’ve made sure that their photos are really saved. The thing is: There is no “Save” button in iPhoto. However, what it could do is informing the user about the “Library” concept, after the first import, for example, and that their data is automatically saved. Without such information, novice users might be scared to lose their photos when they close the application.
  • Make sure that there is a clear indication that data is saved: On the Mac, most Cocoa apps indicate a “dirty” document (i.e. a document with unsaved changes) by displaying a dot in the red “close” button. This enables a user to see at a glance wether their data is saved to disk and it’s ok to terminate the application, even through a Force-Quit a.k.a. kill -9. Employ a similar tactic. The goal is to never leave the user in the unclear wether their data is saved or not.
  • Be honest about the dangers: If you continually ensure your users that their data is perfectly safe with your application, they will only become suspicious. They know that this is not true. They are aware of the dangers of hardware failures or accidentally deleting important data. Thusly, rather than neglecting the problem, be open about it. Tell them that your software is doing everything to protect their data, but it’s still a good idea to make backups. Make it clear how to save data and how to restore it later. Don’t bother them with technical details, just tell them what they can do to keep their data as safe as possible. Sometimes, acknowledging that a fear is real, but offering tips on how to alleviate it, is way better than arguing against the fear itself.
  • Be extra-careful when modifying another application’s data: It can often be observed that users are especially afraid about data loss in this scenario. For example, while they might feel pretty calm about iTunes not messing up their library, they might feel a lot less calm about your program (about which they know little) modifying their carefully-crafed music library. Make backups of the original data before accessing it and explain the process of restoring this backup before making the changes. If the users are aware that they can undo the changes, they are more likely to click the “Do it” button. Remember, in this case, your software is competing in terms of trust against another software that the user is much more familiar with. Kick-start the trust in your software by ensuring that the modifications do not need to be permanent! Messing up another software’s data is, from a user’s perspective, a much bigger faux-pas than messing up your own data. Compare it to this: If you buy a DVD player and it breaks, that sucks, but if it blows up your brand-new HD LCD TV-set, that’s a whole new dimension of suck.
  • Lastly, acknowledge user feedback concerning data loss: Especially do so if it’s public feedback. Contact the given user, apologize (don’t blame it on them, as they will not only be more afraid of using your software again since they’re apparently not capable of doing so, but they might get angry, too) and inquire about how they experienced the problem and during which action(s) it happened. At the same time, inform other users that you are working on the problem, too. This increases trust in your software. Of course, don’t just babble, actually do look into the problem! Remember, one feedback item about data loss may instill fear into a whole slew of other potential users!

Most importantly, you need to acknowledge that most applications aren’t about the application, but about the data your users create, process and store with them. All your cool features don’t matter if their data is lost. The software is just the tool, but the data is the asset.

My Wii “Everybody Votes” channel stats Sat, 14 Jul 2007 20:35:58 +0000 georg Since Nintendo has launched its “Everybody Votes” channel for the Wii in mid-February 2007, I’ve been playing around with it quite frequently. It’s basically a very simple, two-answer-per-question voting system in which banalities such as “Do you play an instrument?” or “Which type of weather makes you suffer more - Hot or cold?” are asked. There are world-wide polls as well as local ones that are specific to the country you live in. Apart from voting directly on an answer, you can also “bet” on which one you believe will receive the majority of votes from the other users.

There’s also a “Voter Stats” section that shows various pieces of aggregated data gathered from your votes, albeit in quite a cryptic format. Here’s what my stats screen currently looks like (click for a larger version):

My "Everybody Votes" channel stats

See that big dent in the “Thoughts” section? I feel offended… More interestingly, though, is that I’m apparently pretty close to the “Popular Opinion” right now (only 11m away), whereas usually, I’m hovering around 100 metres or so. Evil people may now speculate that I just had to give up my well-bolstered “Thoughts” category in order to get really close to the popular opinion…

However, while I’m still not exactly sure about it, the stats probably aren’t meant to be interpreted this way. Judging from the titles of the two screens, I rather suppose that the left screen is a measure of how often my guess about questions in these specific categories has been correct, whereas the second screen is an overall measure for my guessing accuracy. Consequently, I seem to understand the personality of the average Wii owner well, whereas I can’t really envision how they think. Go figure!

Anyways, if you have a Wii, too, give the “Everybody Votes” channel a try (it’s free and more entertaining than it appears to be at the first glance) and be sure to check out your stats after a few votes!