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October 2009 - Posts

Google Maps: They have humans!

The last refresh of Google Maps messed up my street. I live two houses down from an intersection, where on one side the street has one name, and a different name on the other (two subdivisions started years apart). In the last refresh, they had the name from the other street extending half way down my street. I noticed a "report problem" link on the map, so I did. Here's what I got...

Hi Jeff,

Your Google Maps problem report has been reviewed, and you were right! We'll update the map within a month and email you when you can see the change.

Report history
Problem ID: A4EE-24E3-19D7-40FE

Your report:
Beaumont Dr. actually extends to N. Carpenter. It's Red Clover to the east, Beaumont to the west.

Thanks for your help,
The Google Maps team

Interview to start: Six and a half weeks

Trying to wrap your head around leaving an area you've been around for 36 years for a destination and job 2,400 miles away is one of the single most bizarre things that I've encountered in my life. The time between my arrival in Seattle to interview at Microsoft (I was in town for just 27 hours) to my start date is going to be about six and a half weeks, or a month and a half. I'm not sure if that's making good time or not, and I'd love to hear stories from other current Microfolk who have relocated. The only unknown variable left is the move scheduling.

We're downsizing a bit, because we simply can't buy a house. The housing market here around Cleveland has been a brutal disaster, and between my wife's unsold house of 18 months, which we'll take a bath on eventually, and my own which may sell quickly but erase most of the equity, this move is very much like starting over. We're not angry or bitter about it, but it isn't the most cheery subject. Lots of nice apartments and townhouses around the Seattle metro, and we look forward to waking up to much better scenery every day.

It's weird how you can end up in a particular place for much longer than you expected. A great many life changes have affected me the last five years or so, which led me to one of the big "I'm a grown up" discoveries: That I can move if I want. Between visiting my new family out in Snoqualmie and frequent trips to Orlando to support my theme park habit, I was done with Midwest winters. Then I lost my job, twice in the span of a year, and I started to realize how awful the job market here was. Duh, good time to move.

I've only had a few other "I'm a grown up" moments. The earliest one was that I could buy a season pass to Cedar Point and go as much as I wanted to. It makes me a little sad to break the streak of 11 straight seasons of passholderness. Another moment was they day I realized I could buy a house to live in. The most recent one was about two years ago, when I had a lot of bonus cash in hand and decided I could buy a completely non-essential expensive item: a hot tub.

But the moving on to a new place and new job bit is the best moment of all for me. I've been a fan (and critic) of Microsoft for a very long time. I got caught up in the excitement of product development when I was writing my book, privy to early builds and roadmaps under NDA, and wondered what it might be like on the inside. Then the Mix conferences (I've been to three of the four) gave me warm fuzzies about how the Server & Tools division as a whole was coming along. Now I get to work with smart people who are very rapidly changing the way the customers of those products are interacting with the company. Very exciting times, indeed.

The animated featured content box: Critical design issues

I saw this post from Ken Cox about his displeasure with the preview of the new VB developer site, specifically the animated box at the bottom. You've seen these before on a million different sites, where a number of featured content items are previewed.

Putting aside for a moment that this one is particularly non-useful (no single frame hangs out long enough to read it), what do these really accomplish? We can assume that the goal is to get a number of different things in front of the viewer. News sites in particular seem to love using these. I've certainly not conducted a human factors study on the subject, but my gut feeling is that this is completely ineffective.

The first flaw is that it's easier to scan a handful of headlines that are all there. My armchair designer mind says that people are drawn to pictures and retained longer by them, but I'm sure not I buy it. ABC News used to have an annoying headline rotator, but they recently switched to something that shows the picture as well as allows for the quick scan of headlines.

 

ESPN went a step further, realizing that their strength is the mountains of video they have. They abandoned the rotator entirely for video right there, immediately available.

 

It's funny how the traditional media is doing it better, while new and trendy get it wrong. Revision3 has the classic interpretation of this, and it's a failure. First off, they're using a busy image with text over it that's hard to read. Then they have the goofy "highlighted square" navigation in the top right that you almost miss. I shouldn't even call it navigation, because it doesn't tell you anything other than the number of frames, which is nearly useless information. There's no incentive to hang out and see what's next. It also continues to animate whether you like it or not.

But in my quick survey of things, no one gets it quite as wrong as MTV. They have the good old fashioned mystery meat keyframes at right, and many of the text descriptions are too long to read before the next frame.

 

Ultimately, I think some of these attempts come from stakeholders who all get in a room and believe that their content is most important. That's a nightmare you'll frequently run into if you do client work in particular. Other attempts at this I think are simply imitation of a trend.

So what would I consider the critical thinking points around these things if I were in charge? In no particular order...

  • Is it critical that everything sits above the fold? If not, then why are you trying to cram it all into the first 400 pixels? We live in a Google Analytics world. You can see how often people are clicking down the page.
  • Is everything you want to show really that important? If it is, are you sure there aren't other means of discovery? If you're a marketing department and everyone in your company thinks their stuff is most important, rank it yourself or get someone senior to the various departments involved.
  • What is your audience looking for? This seems like such an obvious question, and I don't think designers ask it enough. If they're looking for headlines, give them headlines. If you want to pair with images, make sure they don't come at the expense of headlines. If the reverse is true, again, keep in mind that too much compromise may not effectively give your audience what they're looking for.
  • If you're convinced you have to show more than one thing in a given space, don't rely on conventions you've seen elsewhere. Mystery meat navigation sucks and it pisses off users. As it is, they're probably not going to hang out for more than a few seconds.
  • Animate only if you have to. You're falling into a trap where you have to predict the future in terms of how fast your readers can read, how long the content will be as long as you're using the animation, and you're living on the assumption that the dwell time on the page is long enough to see it all. If the average user sees 1.5 of your frames, you've already failed in getting the rest of that "important" stuff in front of the user.
Getting into the weeds like this is an important exercise I think. It's something that I've thought about quite a bit, and because of the objections I arrive at, I've never used one of these devices in my projects. That doesn't mean I won't, but I've yet to come up with something appropriate for my specific use cases. I think ABC News probably has the best implementation for their audience, and not surprisingly, it does the least.
New MSDN preview from Hanselman

If you haven't seen it (or don't otherwise subscribe to his blog), do check out Hanselman's peek at the new MSDN.

My impression is that I'll be working in some subset of this new stuff when I get there next month, so I now have a vested interest. :)

I'm joining the mothership

As I mentioned previously, I interviewed in Redmond for a position with Microsoft in the Server & Tools Online group, specifically Community Applications & Services (Codeplex, MSDN forums and other stuff in that area). I got the word Friday that I had an offer, today I verbally accepted it, and pending a background check and move, I should be starting some time in early November! I posted a few words about the interview experience on my personal blog.

From a personal and professional standpoint, there are a million reasons why this is the right thing at the right time, and I really look forward to getting started. Those who have followed me on blogs over the years know that online communities have been a passion for me for as long as the Web has been around, and that's a perfect match to my enthusiasm for much of what Microsoft is doing. I look forward to being a part of the stuff in between the products and the people using them. Very exciting times!

In the process of networking around Microsoft, I've also talked to quite a few people there outside of the group I'll be working in, and it feels good to have a greater awareness of what's going on. By the time I left Seattle last week, I was more convinced than ever that for the most part, the Server and Tools division of Microsoft is headed in the right direction. After living in a market (Cleveland) where nothing outside of medicine is doing anything with forward motion, it's a relief to see myself as a part of something good.

So for the next few weeks, I'll be spending time selling non-essential stuff, making minor house repairs, closing out the season at Cedar Point, throwing a party to end all parties for our friends, and figure out how to get the cats to Seattle without causing them major trauma. My wife is stoked too, since her brother and his family lives out there.

What a year... marriage, honeymoon, unemployment, sell a house, move 2,400 miles, start a new job and prepare for a little bundle. Heck of a year!

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