Wed, June 22, 2005

Usability Testing is Painful

Based on my observations of usability tests, I’ve known intellectually that when a website has usability problems, it can be a tremendously frustrating experience for those struggling to successfully use it. That theoretical knowledge became painful reality last night. It’s been a long time since I’ve been as angry, frustrated, and beaten. I was shouting at the website on my computer “I want to send you money! How do I complete the sale?”

The worst part was that I was fairly sure the site was broken. I’d used the site many times before and it had worked fine.

No, perhaps the worst part was that as a website designer and developer, I thought that perhaps I’d just overlooked something. Banner-ad blindness, you know. I took a long careful look, again, at the shopping cart for the “Complete Sale / Check Out” button. No button.

Like most people in usability tests, I blamed myself. What am I doing wrong!? Am I logged in correctly? Yes. Does the help on the site say anything? “Press the Complete Sale button…” Where? I search the rest of the help for anything, anything that might tell me what I’m doing wrong. Nothing. Wait, are my Greasemonkey user scripts or Firefox extensions breaking something? Nope. Was I blocking the images or something? No. Is my computer infected with spyware? I grabbed the latest update and tested to find a bunch of false positives, but nothing apparently wrong. Perhaps I should try another computer. Nothing. How can a hugely popular site be missing the button to complete the purchase!?

I was almost at the point of doing something crazy and trying the site in Internet Explorer when I stopped myself. If the site doesn’t work with my browser, do I really want to send them money? No. Sale lost!

When a website breaks, as in this case, there’s no obvious way for the user to know that the site is broken. At least in a physical store, if there’s no clerk around, I know it. The web user is left to wonder and blame himself, even when he should know better.

After sending off a sad email to the site’s customer support, I gave up, defeated. The next morning, the site’s shopping cart was fixed and worked as I’d expected it to. The button appeared in a sidebar that just hadn’t been there before. Too bad I no longer wanted to purchase anything.

I’ve gained a lot of sympathy for those we torture during usability testing. I now know why I’ve seen them close to tears while we think “It’s obvious! Just go back two pages and press that other button. Why are they getting so emotionally involved?”

Tue, June 21, 2005

Firefox Form Fix for 1.0.5

I noticed a little bit ago that the form autocomplete behavior was not working as I expected, but I hadn’t quite figured out why until recently. For whatever reason, I often start typing in a form field, wait for the autocomplete list to appear, press down arrow to pick the appropriate autocomplete selection, and then press right arrow. This works beautifully in the location bar: it positions the cursor at the end of the completed selection and lets you type in the rest of the path or press Enter to go to the location. Unfortunately, when you press right arrow in the form autocomplete, it just closes the autocomplete box and leaves you with nothing other than the characters you originally typed.

I’m happy to report that somebody noticed it, reported it in bug 283777 and fixed it. The fix is coming in the next Firefox 1.0.x update along with other good fixes.

Sat, June 18, 2005

Open Source Your Library

I was recently looking at Jon Udell’s library lookup bookmarklet generator and trying it with some local libraries. This got me thinking about web-based library catalogs: it is frustrating that there are so many different systems with widely varying capabilities and that the local Kinlaw library’s system apparently does not allow ISBN lookup. (If somebody can figure this out, I’d love to hear about it.)

Aside: In “Nobody expects the spontaneous integration” Jon notes how easy it can be to connect two websites and thereby create new and better services, and yet people don’t expect that nor do they design to make it easy. Having worked with bookmarklets for many of years, I know how painful it can be to create useful integrations. Thankfully, this is changing. For example, it is amazing to see the ways people are inserting new data into Google Maps, despite Google doing little to provide for this initially. Housing Maps combines Google Maps and housing information from Craigs List to make it easier to find a place to rent. Chicago Crime displays information about reported crime in Chicago on a map.

What if libraries designed their systems for integration with other web services? Do the many different systems provide a great benefit? Or is that wasted duplicate effort? It seems that a library catalog system would be a logical open source project. I mean, how hard could it be? All you’d need is a fairly simple database and web app. Then I started researching it and it seems it might be a little more complicated than I first suspected.

The OSS for Libraries site provides a wealth of information about open source projects related to libraries. From there I was delighted to find several fairly mature open source projects for full fledged library systems. I was primarily interested in what I believe are called OPACs (Online Public Access Catalogs) but discovered that many of these systems also provide Circulation Desk features and various reporting capabilities.

  • I found Koha first and it seemed the most impressive. It was developed in New Zealand and is in use by a number of large libraries with multiple branches. It certainly would benefit from some user interface work, but that’s a typical problem for open source projects (and library OPAC systems in general if you ask me). I believe it uses Linux, MySql, and Perl. It is released under the GNU General Public License (GPL).

  • OpenBiblio was also impressive and offers similar features. It uses PHP and MySql. It is available under the GPL.

  • PHPMyLibrary seems a bit behind the other projects, but has a clear roadmap for improvements. From what I gather, MARC format is the standard for library interchange and it is working to improve its support for the format. I didn’t play with this one as much.

  • Finally, the PHPMyLibrary site pointed me to the Emilda project. I found this one somewhat clunky to use, because it seems to emphasize somewhat inscrutable graphics in the interface. It was developed in Finland and is in use by several school libraries there. It was recently open sourced under the GPL.

My love for libraries started at a young age. I’m increasingly fascinated by libraries and the activities involved with organizing the collections, managing the circulation, and preserving rare works. I think it would be fun to work on converting a library that is using a commercial system to an open source project. It would also be fun to help with improving these systems. Using and improving open source projects seems an obvious way for libraries to cut costs while potentially providing better services.

To think that I started this research because I simply wanted to be able to find out if a book was available in a local library. Of course better than finding out that a local library has the book would be for the book to be available online. I’ve been happy to see more libraries making their rare collections available online. This improves access as well as protecting and preserving. It would be nice if this could be done for more libraries’ collections. Given that many works just sit on the shelves, it would be terrific to find a way to virtually check them out from anywhere in the world.

Fri, June 17, 2005

Book Meme

I see Basil will do about anything to entice me to blog again, even infecting me with a meme. Apparently it worked.

  1. Total number of books I’ve owned

    I have absolutely no idea. If I counted the books I purchased for college alone, it is a sizable number. A rough extrapolation of the books on the shelves in my office is around 400. I’m sure I could double that with the books that are around the rest of the house. And I’ve got a whole slew of books that are still at my parents’. Perhaps a better answer is “enough for a small library", although it would be a somewhat limited library of mostly user interaction design/computer programming, orthodox theology, and science fiction books.

  2. Last book I bought

    I think the last book I purchased was from our church bookstore, which is somewhat surprising as I buy many books online. I think it was either The Soul, the Body and Death by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo or Journey Back to Eden: My Life and Times Among the Desert Fathers by Mark Gruber. I gave both books to BrBourbon. The last book I purchased for myself was also The Soul, the Body and Death. It was so good I figured BrBourbon needed a copy. The next book I purchase is likely to be DHTML Utopia: Modern Web Design Using JavaScript & DOM by Stuart Langridge. Ignoring the silly title, this looks to be a terrific book about using JavaScript in modern web design.

  3. Last book I read

    I just reread The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams in preparation for the movie, but that doesn’t really count since I’ve read it several times before. Before that I think the last book I completed was Playing with Trains: A Passion Beyond Scale by Sam Posey, a fabulous book and yet another perfect gift from my sister. She says she didn’t know it was on my wish list and just thought of me. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it to any model railroaders, armchair or otherwise. I also recently finished Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American an autobiography by Jean-Robert Cadet. Provided insight into the Haitian culture and was somewhat disturbing. I speed read most of Journey Back to Eden before giving it away. At times very beautiful, it provided a look at the Copts through Western eyes.

    Technically, the last book I read, I read aloud to the kids. We’ve been reading the books in the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The last one we finished was By the Shores of Silver Lake. We’re working on The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle now.

    As is normal for me, I’m currently reading several books. Here’s the main ones:

    • The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness by Virginia Postrel – Has application to my computer work and makes me consider how the aesthetics of Orthodox worship impact me. Hopefully I will write more about this in the future.
    • The Soul, the Body and Death by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo – Very good. It’s taking me a long time to get through this one because it is so rich.
    • Father Arseny 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father translated by Vera Bouteneff – I just realized I haven’t read the Spiritual Father section.
  4. Five books that mean a lot to me

    1. The Bible
    2. The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis – I couldn’t pick just one, but if I had to it would probably be The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, or The Silver Chair, or The Last Battle, or… never mind.
    3. Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective by Daniel Clendenin and The Orthodox Way by Bishop Kallistos Ware – Combined these books started me on a journey into the Eastern Orthodox Church.
    4. About Face: The Essentials of User Interface Design by Alan Cooper
    5. The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène Du Bois
  5. People I will infect with this meme

    BrBourbon, Moose and Chris.

I’d suggest that a better Book Meme would include the last book you received as a gift and the last book you gave as a gift. It appears I answered those as well.