Friday, August 29, 2008

Cape May Parking: Designed to Scam

Some designs in life are ubiquitous; you don't need to dissect them. You just know what they are and what they are supposed to do. Parking meters were one of those things to me. You pulled into a parking spot, saw the familiar "head" of the meter that displayed how much time was left and you fed it coins. That is how it is supposed to work. That is, unless you want to increase the number of people that you give tickets to.

Last week I was in Cape May on vacation, and was the victim of a new design for parking meters. I drove into the main section of town and pulled into an empty parking spot. As I pulled in, there were no visual cues anywhere that I had to pay for parking. That is, there wasn't until I got back to my car and found the ticket on the windshield. That was my first clue that I was in a parking space that had to be paid for. That was my education by the town of Cape May that they want you to pay for parking. So instead of fifty cents going into their budget, they got $32 out of me.

How did this happen? You pull into a spot that has no number in white text on the black pavement. There isn't a familiar parking meter with a blinking red "expired" display on it. There isn't a sign nearby saying you have to pay for parking. There are zero visual cues to let you know that you are about to break the law.

Here is the despicable design of their parking system that I learned about AFTER getting ticketed. In the section I parked, there are 19 parking spaces. To let drivers know they have to pay for parking in these spaces they provide 2 signs for all 19 spaces, along with 2 computerized machines that accepts your money. If you don't happen to park near them, like I didn't, you are screwed. It turns out that there are numbers on the spaces, but not in the familiar place before you enter the spot. They place it in small letters on the gray curb, where you can't see it from your car. This turned out to be a real life I SPY game, and I lost.

It turns out that the design is so bad, the local newspaper, EXIT ZERO, has a centerfold story on it. The title of the story is, "An Encyclopedic Explanation on How to Handle Those Pesky New Parking Meters...Please Read!" The need for an article explaining how to use parking meters speaks volumes. Take a look at the article:

InteractionDesignBlog.com has a few articles on the design and usability of parking meters, but they assume that the person knows that the meter exists. I hope that they add this to their design recommendations for better parking meters. Here is the same image as above, but with the familiar visual cues we'd expect present to notify us to pay for the parking spot:


If someone came to me and said, "Please design me a parking meter system that will not be intuitive and drive up ticket revenues" I would have designed this exact system. If they wanted a system that was fair to vacationers visiting their town, you would have designed something familiar. According to the Cape May County Herald, the design-to-scam is working flawlessly with parking meter revenue up this year already by $26,365 to last year at this time. A number on the ground painted in yellow and green parking meters at each spot with a P on them would probably have impact on this number.

Other than the parking meter scam, Cape May is a wonderful place to vacation. A highlight was eating at 410 Bank Street, which had parking right next to it, with good old parking meters installed.

UPDATE: This article was published in the latest issue of Exit Zero magazine (Volume 6, #30, page 43). Here is the article in PDF format (2.78MB).

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Images from GEL 2008


Below is a link to an assortment of images I took took while attending Mark Hurst's GEL 2008 conference. GEL stands for "Good Experience Live" and I highly recommend you consider attending this if creating good experience is part of what you do. Sounds kind of silly, because I that is something I think we all do. With that said, I recommend this to everyone.

There was such a wonderful assortment of stories shared across many disciplines and domains. Standouts for me were Alex Lee from OXO, Bridget Duffy from the Cleveland Clinic, Garrett Oliver from the Brooklyn Brewery, Phoebe Damrosch, George Vaillant and Natasha Schull. I was able to walk away from this conference with a lot of ideas and data to include in my work.

Link to the images I took at GEL 2008: http://picasaweb.google.com/uxarts/GEL2008

Learn more about GEL: http://www.gelconference.com/

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Revisionists Photoshop-ery: Photoshop Frauding Has Cultural Connections


Creating realistic phony images with Photoshop has gone up a notch in the last year. I've blogged about the fake photographs in the Oscar De La Hoya trial, Fox News smearing New York Times reporters and Iran augmenting the number of missiles they test. It's a global epidemic.

The New York Times has an article on people using Photoshop for less dastardly reasons. It discusses how people are using the sophisticated image editing software from Adobe to embellish their photo albums. Placing people in photos that weren't there, altering smiles and bringing relatives back from the dead.

In India, she said, it is a tradition to cut-and-paste head shots of absent family members into wedding photographs as a gesture of respect and inclusion. "Everyone understands that it's not a trick," she said. "That's the nature of the photograph. It's a Western sense of reality that what is in front of the lens has to be true."

Here is a link to the entire NY Times article by Alex Williams:
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/17/fashion/17photo.html

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Think Different-ly: Innovation in the United States


The Washington Times has a good article on innovation with really good examples. One is Aravind Eye Care. They are the Terminator of cataract surgeries. That is all they do, they perform 60% of their surgeries for free and they still make a profit. To do this, they had to rethink the entire business lifecycle and go against Western philosophies of innovating through addition.

Another example is Haier, maker of washing machines. They noticed that they were consistently called out to unclog drains of customers. This was because the customer was not using the machine for its intended use, they were washing sweet potatoes in it. They took this observation and added a new vegetable wash feature in their latest product release. They have also delivered a washing machine optimized to make goats' cheese, and a refrigerator that has a fold-out desk for students in dorms. These features all come from understanding segments of their customers by having solid listening channels in place. They are now one of the top five appliance manufacturers in the world.

Innovation isn't just this loosely defined term thrown around by CEOs. It is a mindset that can sometimes be as simple as observing unknown unknowns or as complex as changing around entire business models. One thing that is constant in innovation is the deep understanding of the customer experience.

Read the entire article here: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2008/aug/03/rethinking-innovation/

Monday, August 4, 2008

MSNBC.com is a Big, Fat Tease


This morning I saw a link to a story on MSNBC.com that I thought was interesting. Microsoft has proven in a new study that, indeed, any 2 people are just 6.6 degrees apart from Kevin Bacon. My initial thought was, "Does Microsoft really have extra time to spend on these kind of studies with all the User Experience Design catch-up they have to do?" But I quickly moved from that to click the link and see the Bacon-data. The problem I had is that the page-title and the sub-title was on the web page when it loaded, but the story content wasn't there and was replaced with this error:

The page you are seeking has expired and is no longer available at msnbc.com. However, it may be available at The Washington Post.

Very strange. So they foresaw an error like this and figured it was The Washington Post's fault so they point me over there. So I click on the link taking me to The Washington Post. Despite having to search through 236 links on The Washington Post's homepage, the story I was looking for wasn't there.

Ultimately, Google was able to find me the story. Reprinting The Washington Post's story ended up working fine on Kansascity.com. I guess MSNBC.com using Microsoft technology can't serve up stories on Microsoft as easily as Kansas City can.

Enjoy the article here: http://www.kansascity.com/news/nation/story/731567.html

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Sad State of Experience: Computers

My sister-in-law is about to embark on the arduous journey of law school and doesn't know what computer to buy. Just what we needed, I know, another sister-in-law. But even budding-lawyers need a bit of compassion when it comes to choosing a computer to accompany them on their pilgrimage towards something society loathes.

How is it that this decision is still so complicated in 2008? It's not complicated for complex reasons, but for basic ones you would think they would have solved by now. Which computer is reliable? What do I do if it crashes? It's not about features and innovations that make the experience better, but which one won't blue-screen as fast as the other one. I guess the more we move our assets to the web, the less we will care about these unreliable input devices.

Computers suck. Shes buying a Mac.

Is This Really What The NJ Beaches Are About?


I'm from New Jersey. I've witnessed all the stereotypes portrayed on television and movies. When I spotted the video “Guido Beach” on a blog this morning, I thought about how easy it is to create a slanted view of anything.

If you wanted to illustrate how usable a web application was, imagine if you only interviewed the developers. They have no problem using it. 100% usable! Another bit of twisted perspective would be using feedback only from your most advanced users. Will this help you expand your product footprint or just make a tiny percentage of your users happy?

This video is as representative of a NJ beach as Tony Soprano is of Italians. Unfortunately, the scary thing about this video is that even if these are the edge cases, they still exist. I may have to re-think my vacation plans to Cape May.

Guido Beach:

Direct link to video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjLaJO8QEuw

Similar to getting a review of the Amazon Kindle from a content provider (Toni Morrison) vs. an actual user:

Direct link to video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKCFZ2-TPjA

UPDATE: The Guido Beach video has been removed from YouTube. I will re-post if it surfaces again.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

When a Tiny Bug Eats Away Multiple User Experiences: Thank You, SiteMeter



A number of blogs that I read came crashing down on me yesterday. Every time I would try to visit one of these websites, I would get a creepy error saying that "Internet Explore cannot display the webpage" after an "Operation aborted" alert. What did this mean?



My initial diagnosis was that the first website that gave me the error was at fault. They must have had some bizarre code added to it that caused it to fail. When this started happening on more than this website I had to re-think my hypothesis.



My next explanation for this phenomenon was that I had become infected with some evil virus. I then proceeded to run Trend Micro for the next 4 hours. When it was done running, I returned to the crashing culprits only to find them still giving me the error. At that point, I blamed Trend Micro for not being able to catch this malicious little bug.



The next thing I did was to try and open the same websites in Firefox. Voila! No error messages. So this must be an Internet Explorer bug. I went to see if there was an update for IE only to find that I had the latest version. Now I was dependent on Microsoft to fix my browsing experience. Eek.

Before giving up, I noticed a post on one of the websites I sojourn:

Update: It looks like there's a sitemeter problem that is affecting Internet Explorer all over the internet. Many websites won't open if they have sitemeter. Working on it now...
So Sitemeter caused all of this and had taken down thousands of websites because of their wish to track web statistics? Wow. The Sitemeter website itself suffered from its own bug, not coming up in IE when I tested it. It turns out that all of this comes from Sitemeter making some platform changes to "offer a slight improvement to performance and page load times. They "apologize for any inconvenience this may cause but we hope the new features and benefits will be appreciated." I don't think there is any appreciation going on by Sitemeter's customers and their customers' customers.



So it wasn't the websites I routinely visit and enjoy, Trend Micro nor even good old Internet Explorer. I felt bad that I had blamed them for all of these woes. I apologize to you all. It goes to show that a small bug on in this Web 2.0 world we browse in can screw up the experience for more than just the people that created it. It looks like the only winner here is Firefox, which gave me the same good user experience I typically get from it. I may be packing my bags for good, Microsoft. Please thank Sitemeter for it.



UPDATE 1: Sitemeter has "resolved" the issue. It had to do with their new website launch. Resolution? Read their answer: http://weblog.sitemeter.com/2008/08/02/sitemeter-ie-issues-resolved/



UPDATE 2: Gawker readers blame Microsoft's browser even though it's a Sitemeter glitch: http://gawker.com/5032323/the-gawker-internet-explorer-pc-problem