A day late and a click short

An ad from my Facebook feed
An ad from my Facebook feed

The other day, this little plastic piece broke causing my 9-year-old car to spray hot engine coolant all over the road and emit plumes of steam from under the hood. AAA rescued the car and a tow truck  brought it home. Fortunately, the broken part was easily visible in the engine compartment and a quick search identified several options for purchasing a replacement.

As auto parts go, it looked like one of the easier to replace, but it broke on Monday and I wouldn’t be able to get to it until the weekend, which would inconvenience my wife and daughter who drive the car. So, I called my favorite auto mechanic, Accurate Auto Service, in Snohomish, who could (and did) fix it right away.

Problem solved. Which brings me to…

Yesterday. Facebook tried to add value to my browsing experience (and their bottom line) by showing me the ad in the photo.

Thanks, but no thanks.

They do this a lot, and while I understand how Facebook lives to sell ads, I’m not sure why they think that showing me something I looked for (and found) two-days earlier is something I might still be interested in. I’m sure they have the numbers to show this works enough to keep doing it, but it brings to mind some troubling implications:

  1. What were they  (i.e. their algorithm) thinking when they picked this ad? Is that how I really shop? (maybe) but more troubling still, what else do they know about me better than I do? Which leads to…
  2. How were they watching (I know, tracking cookies and what not, but how far does that go? Are they watching me type this?)
  3. What would I have thought if this had happened 10 years ago? 20 years ago? (There’s another blog post)
  4. Why does this not bother me anymore? Are baby pictures and cute dog videos really that valuable to me?

How did I ever survive without Facebook there to show me baby pictures for the low, low price of being able to look over my shoulder when I do other things on the Internet? Truth be told, it’s really easier to just stop thinking and look at the cute baby pictures–and therein lies the real problem.

 

Bridging the decades

DB-9 connector used by RS-232 connections to PC

After installing the solid-state drive and experiencing what 2015-technology has to offer, I finally installed the serial (as in RS-232) and Firewire-400 ports to connect my turn-of-the-century technology to the new computer. So far, so good. Windows 7 drivers all installed without complaint, and they seem to work well–quite well, as a matter of fact.

As Hannibal of the A-Team would say, “I love it when a plan comes together!”

It seems like only yesterday

Copying files on the new computer
Copying files on the new computer

Only 13 years ago, I bought my last desktop computer. Rest assured, I’ve bought newer computers in the intervening years, but they’ve all been laptops of various makes and sizes. My most recent laptop was more like a portable desktop in terms of CPU (Intel I7) and memory (8GB…it seemed like a lot for a laptop, 2-1/2 years ago) and a fancy graphics chip. I thought that would make a reasonable replacement for my aging desktop, but after editing some video recently, I reevaluated that conclusion. I think it was when the keyboard reached 150+ degrees Fahrenheit (according to the IR thermometer).

In 2002, when I bought the last desktop for video editing, this it what $2,000-some would get you: 1 GHz 32-bit processor, 1 GB of RAMDAC memory, 100Mb/Sec Ethernet, Firewire 400 and USB 2.0 (stop giggling). It’s gone through a few hard drives, video cards, monitors, and other peripherals, but it’s still chugging away running Windows XP (SP3). For several years, it did a decent job editing DV videos with reasonable aplomb. However, since almost melting the keyboard of my laptop, I’ve been shopping for a new desktop–until last weekend.

I saw the computer I wanted on sale at Costco and, as often happens when visiting Costco, it somehow ended up in the cart. Since then, as I should be revising my dissertation, I’ve been going through the process of migrating the features and functions the old desktop performed to the new computer. Eventually, the old desktop will join the collection of obsolete computers that have taken residence out in my garage. It’s in the process of migrating from the old to the new that I provides the contrast between then and now.

Starting with Firewire 400. Who uses that? (I do.) I need this to connect to my DV and HDV camera and tape deck collection at least long enough to copy their content to a hard drive.

And the RS-232 serial ports. When did they stopped including those on computers? I still have some devices that connect over serial cables, so I’ll add a couple of ports for those.

While addding these cards helps bridge the technological generation gap(s), I’m hardly sad about how technology has improved over the years. Gigabit-ethernet makes connecting to the NAS much faster. SATA drives are a big step up from the older ATA drives in speed and capacity, increasing file transfer speed considerably.

But the biggest treat came from the solid-state drive (SSD) I added, which made possible sustained file transfer rates from the internal SATA drive of more than 150 megabytes/second (as in the photo). That’s  8-10x faster than the desktop it replaced and 3x faster than the laptop that was supposed to be my next desktop–this is now limited by the SATA drive.

So back to copying files and installing apps.

Meeting the customer

Photo of people watching the dentist and waiting their turn
Waiting to see the dentist. (From 2014 trip)

My wife and I were part of team who staffed the medical and dental clinic in Rus Rus, a small village 70 miles inland from the Caribbean coast and five miles north of Nicaragua. In our most recent trip to Honduras, I had  time to mingle with the people who came from miles around to visit us in-between my radio-operator duties.

I speak enough Spanish to carry a conversation, but that’s of only minimal benefit it Rus Rus. The majority of people who came to visit us spoke only Miskito. Nevertheless, I managed to chat with a few of the people who spoke Spanish. I didn’t plan to interview them, but my curiosity can be hard to suppress.

I’m fascinated by the insights that simply chatting with the customer can reveal (to the point I’m getting a degree in it). By listening to the locals, I found that our visits are quite welcome by the local population, but they can also be quite an exercise in patience for them. And, that’s after they walk for hours, or days in some cases, to visit us. In keeping with my theme for this year, I consider…

The Story of Luis

When I met Luis, he had been waiting outside the clinic for over a day to have a painful tooth extracted (after suffering with it for several months before our visit). Luis lived about two hours away by truck or five or six hours away on foot. At this point, Luis was getting pretty hungry because the last time he’d eaten was before leaving to come visit us.

The dental clinic is very popular on these trips, and there is always quite a queue for the services they provide–often, there are many more patients in need of dental services than we can accommodate. Not knowing that he might have a long wait to see the dentist, Luis didn’t bring any food with him and returning home for the night wasn’t a viable option. Luis was debating whether to return home (in order to eat) or continue waiting to have his tooth pulled–a difficult decision given the lack of information he had available. I hope he was seen, but I wasn’t able to follow up with him–I had to return to my duties as the team’s radio operator shortly after our conversation.

Fortunately, IHS of MN, the group that organizes the trip, cares about their service. Hopefully, we’ll come up with a way to help people like Luis come prepared for a longer wait, or maybe provide more information about where they are in the queue so they can make an informed decision about what to do. Because they actively seek feedback from the volunteers, I’m sure we’ll do better to make time.

On this trip, I’m glad I was  able to have a chance to see how our visits looked through the customers’ eyes and be able to provide that feedback.

How many topics in a page?

API reference topic type distribution observed in study of open-source API documentation
API reference topic type distribution observed in study of open-source API documentation

This question has come up a few times recently and the answer, like the answer to so many technical writing questions is, “it depends,” of course. Which begs the next question, “depends on what?”

Well, at the root, what the reader wants to accomplish, perhaps most critically, how do they want to accomplish it.

I researched this a couple of years ago and found the multi-topic/page format was used in the API reference documentation we studied to be twice as common as the the single-topic/page format.

Graph of API reference topic type by API size
The distribution of API reference topic type by API size

Now, because a format is more popular doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s better. Looking at this chart from the study shows that the format preference shifts towards the single-element per page format with larger APIs. It’s possible that the difference observed is nothing more than an artifact of authoring systems or organizational style guides.

Research on how people construct knowledge, however, tends to prefer the multi-topic/page format (to a point). If you are constructing knowledge about an API, you might look for an overview, some sample code, some explanations of some key methods, go back to the overview, look at some more sample code… Lather, rinse, repeat. Such a learning method is best facilitated by a big topic in which the reader can skip around to see quickly all the related information in whatever order his or her learning style desires. Doing that with each topic in a separate page requires multiple web-server accesses, each interrupting the flow for more time than in-page navigation. While the 2-3 seconds it might take for the page to load doesn’t sound like much, if it breaks the reader’s flow, it degrades the learning experience.

A key part of this learning method is the intra-page navigation–to facilitate meaningful skipping around, or random access to an otherwise sequentially oriented topic. This topic came up in a discussion about the scrollspy feature of Twitter Bootstrap, which provides some very helpful in-page navigation elements. The advantage of scrollspy is that it builds the in-page navigation when the page loads, which makes it much easier for the author (and maintainer) of the topic.

Back from Honduras

The field hospital in Rus Rus, Gracias a DIos, Honduras
The field hospital in Rus Rus, Gracias a DIos, Honduras

I’m finally getting back online after being in Honduras for two weeks and then spending the next two weeks catching up to the life I left behind.

For the last two weeks of February, my wife and I were in Honduras working as members of a brigada medica (medical brigade) with the International Health Organization of Minnesota (IHS of MN). We worked as a part of a medical & dental team—my wife was an interpreter and I was a radio operator. The organization deployed eight teams to various parts of Honduras. Our team went to a field hospital in Rus Rus, a small village in the jungle, 60-some miles inland from the Caribbean coast of Honduras and just five miles north of Nicaragua in La Mosquitia.

IHS of MN has brought medical brigades to Honduras for 33 years. This was our second trip with them and our second time at the field hospital in Rus Rus. Last year, I filled in as an interpreter for the medical staff when I wasn’t on the radio. This year, we had a surplus of interpreters, so when I wasn’t working the radio, I mingled with the local people who came to visit the clinic and got to know more about them and their lives.

As with our trip, last year, it was an amazing experience. We had the pleasure to work on a dedicated team of volunteers who provided health and dental care to people who would otherwise not have access to these services.

More stories, photos, and videos to come!

Lies, damn lies, and statistics

Chart of science-public split on science-related issues (from fivethirtyeight.com)
Science-public split on science-related issues (from fivethirtyeight.com)

The headline from stats web site, http://fivethirtyeight.com/, says Americans And Scientists Agree More On Vaccines Than On Other Hot Button Issues while the headline from Mother Jones, reporting on the same data, says, This Chart Shows That Americans Are Way Out of Step With Scientists on Pretty Much Everything. You wouldn’t know from the headlines that they were reporting from the same data.

If you ignore the text and just look at the data in each chart, while the chart from http://fivethirtyeight.com/ breaks the data out by political-party affiliation, the numbers do appear to be the same (or the same enough). The rhetoric and visualizations, however, are quite different.

Things that make you go, “hmmmm…..”

Or, another way to look at it is that it always pays to go to the source data.

Chart showing opinion differences between public and scientists from Mother Jones
Opinion differences between public and scientists from Mother Jones

A great tutorial saved my glasses

Last night, in an attempt to fix a loose temple on my glasses, I found myself in a pickle. As is often the case, it was much easier to take my glasses apart than it was to reassemble them.

I’d taken the temple off my glasses frame to tighten a loose hinge. However, I realized (after dis-assembly, of course) that the spring tensioner in the temple made it impossible to replace the screw that holds it to the frame. Of course, I tried (stubbornly) for about 30 minutes to figure out how to reassemble my glasses. Alas, to no avail.

Eventually, I asked YouTube and found this video.

In less than two-and-a-half minutes, the video producer demonstrated the problem, the tools needed for the repair, showed how the method worked, and then the final outcome—a textbook-perfect tutorial. No fluff, just useful information. Five minutes later, I had my glasses reassembled and back in business.

Thanks danliv99!

Too little, too late

ATT's quick reply to a recent tweet
ATT’s quick reply to a recent tweet

I have to say that I was impressed by ATT’s response to a not-so-complimentary tweet I made last night. While ATT replied 12 minutes after my tweet, the conversation took place three months too late.

I bought my first cell phone in 1992 as a Cellular One customer– back when the phone was the size (and weight) of a brick. I stayed the course through several mergers and 20+ years of technological evolution. But last fall, I’d had enough. What was the last straw?

Their web site

Last fall, I was ready to upgrade my aging iPhone 4 and, like so many others, started my research on the web. As a loyal ATT customer, I started with their site. In fact, I went 80% of the way through the upgrade process several times before I would end up hopelessly confused. The site broke a cardinal:

A web site should never make the customer feel stupid.

Each attempt to make a purchase sent me into a Gordian knot of screens, warnings, seemingly endless and contradictory terms and conditions, to the point I wasn’t sure what I was going to end up paying or getting. Each time, I started out knowing what I wanted (a family plan and a new iPhone), but by the time I bailed out, I wasn’t sure which end was up. I’m sure I’m not the first to say it but,

Why can’t comparing cell phones and plans be easy?

Do customers actually write in and say, “Could you please make your site and terms more complicated? I’m afraid that I almost understand them?” Honestly, I’ve had an easier time navigating a hall of mirrors. I’m not going to publish a heuristic evaluation or usability report (although they can hire me to do that, if they’d like), but as a customer,

I felt like the ATT site had talked me out of being a customer with each interaction.

So, after several frustrating attempts, I finally went shopping and ended up moving the family to T-Mobile. While that was an experience for another blog post, I’m glad to have put it all behind me.

I’m impressed to see they have responsive and proactive customer service agents, and a 12-minute response to a tweet is pretty impressive. If their web site had been as helpful, I might still be their customer.

What can they do?

After all this, it seems only fair that I offer some constructive criticism (if not the entire usability report).

  1. Describe features in customer terms, not industry jargon. The catchy plan names need to be followed quickly by descriptions in plain English.
  2. Prices. Just tell me, please. Don’t make me work so hard to become your customer.
  3. Make the plans easy to compare. Apples to apples, please.

So, I’m glad I’ll not in the market for a cell phone in the near future. With any luck, the next time I am, things will have improved.

In-flight reading

Photo of in-flight reading material
The collection of in-flight reading material found in the seat back of a recent Alaska Airlines flight

I’m working on a paper for the HCII 2015 conference and thought of the reading material I saw on a recent airline flight. The paper discusses ways to identify the goals of different types of information-focused web content and how to measure how well the content is accomplishing those goals, so now I see this everywhere I look.

This is what occurred to me while I was staring at this collection of literature for several hours.

The Alaska Airlines magazine

It’s goal is to provide the reader with entertainment, er, I mean provide them with advertising, using entertainment as the bait. So how would you measure success? Interaction with the content, maybe? Coupon codes entered, products ordered from the web links, and other interactions traceable to the magazine. Pretty straightforward. Content can be compared to the corresponding advertisement, reader feedback, and the publisher can decide what’s working and what needs work.

The airsick bag

This isn’t really literature, but a good case of “if it’s not easy to use, it’s going to get messy.” I don’t think any amount of documentation could fix a poorly-designed air sickness bag.

The emergency procedures brochure

This is everyone’s favorite reading material, right? It’s goal is to provide important information and provide it in a way that’s easy to understand (quickly, in the worst-case scenario). This is a document that Alaska Airlines (and its passengers) hope to never need, but when it’s needed, it’s value will be immeasurable. How do you track that goal? User feedback? probably not. Survivor stories? Let’s hope not! Maybe usability testing?

The WiFi and the “Meals & Snacks” advertisements

Again, this is purely promotional material whose effectiveness can be tracked by sales. Like the magazine, this is not unfamiliar territory.

What’s this got to do with me?

As a writer of help content, I relate to the emergencies procedures brochure. Sometimes I don’t think anyone reads my content and frequently, Google analytics tends to agree with me. But, I know that in some cases, when those few people need to read it, that’s going to be the most important thing for them to read (if only for that moment). If I’ve done my job right, what I’ve written will save them time and money. I’ll never know that from looking at Google analytics, but, a usability test (even an informal or discount test) will tell me if a topic will be ready to save the day (moment) when it’s called upon to do so.

Back to the paper.