29 August, 2009

Apple gets too "smart" for this user

In design, there is an ongoing debate as to how "smart" devices should try to be. A smart device is one that predicts (correctly) what the user's intention is, and then adjusts the experience to facilitate the detected scenario.

For instance:

You open your Gmail and you start typing your friend Suzie Blanchard's name. She's the only person in your entire contact list that has a name starting with "Su", so as soon as you type "Su", her entire name appears and all you need to do is hit Tab or Enter to choose her. That's an acceptable use of "smarts" in a program.

If, instead, you had friends named Suzie Blanchard, Susan Smith, and Sun Moonbeam, then you'd be annoyed if Suzie's name got stuck in there. Likewise, if it not only chose her name, but did the "Enter" for you, that would be bad too, because you would not be able to type a new "Su" name without deleting the entry of her name and hoping it learned that you didn't want her to be filled-in on the second try (lots of auto-correction behaviors in spell-check behave in that fashion - "No, I really wanted a lowercase 'i' in that sentence because I am writing about an integer variable, not writing about myself!"

So, where did the iPhone and Apple make big mistakes in their 3.0 version of the software? Two huge bets, that are turning out to be massive pain points for me as a user:
  1. Many people wanted to be able to type emails and texts with the screen rotated, in the same manner that you would do rotated typing for the browser and many of the apps. It was a missing feature from the earlier builds. So it has been implemented in 3.0. The problem is, what if I don't want my screen to rotate with respect to the earth's gravitational field? For example, what if I am in bed trying to text or send email? The screen is parallel to the axis of my body, but it's perpendicular to the axis of the gravity, and thus, the image rotates, and I can't type because the screen is sideways for me. And the worst part is, there's no way to disable this feature!! Apple, and their smarts, decided that using the phone to say good morning to someone, while still in bed, was not a use case that needed to be addressed. Bad decision.

  2. For some reason, even less practical than the one above, Apple decided that "Shake to Undo" was a feature that people would think is useful and cool. If you're doing something, and you want to undo it, you just shake your phone. Simple, right? The thing is, if I were going to make that feature, I would want to do a lot of testing to determine what constitutes a shake. Because as it stands, hitting a small bump in a car constitutes a shake. Going running constitutes a shake. Walking down a flight of stairs constitutes a shake. And every time you do one of these "non-shake" actions, a modal prompt (i.e. a message that you, as the user, need to actively dismiss) pops up on the screen, saying "Nothing to undo". That is horrible, and it will be shocking if Apple doesn't fix this. For starters, I suggest making the threshold for "What is a shake?" about double or triple it's current setting.

19 August, 2009

Train wrecks

Why do we always stop to look at train wrecks
Why don't we just look the other way
There's nothing to see there, really
Nothing you haven't seen before
Because, while not all trains are the same
The respective wreckage looks eerily similar

Nonetheless, we stop
We look

Maybe there's something thankful
About not being that train



04 August, 2009

New ways that Facebook violates privacy policies

Facebook does not, apparently, need to adhere to the same rules of security or privacy as other online institutions. I have observed three ways that they violate users' privacy, in spite of any privacy settings you might make.
  1. If you make yourself appear "offline" in Facebook chat, then you should not appear in someone's chat list. This works. Well, there's an exception. If I connect to Facebook from my iPhone, then I can see you in my chat list, even if you said you don't want to be seen. I can't actually chat with you - I get an error - but I can see that you're online. This is a privacy "hole" that Facebook did not block.

  2. If you set your Facebook privacy so that you cannot be found using the Facebook Search capability, then I will not find you if I search for you. Well, there's an exception, of course. Even though Facebook doesn't find you, there's a Web Search results section on the right side of the search results page, and it may find you there, providing me the link to your profile, even though you told Facebook not to let you be searchable. Of course, it's really no different than if I used Google to search for you. But it defeats the purpose of blocking search.

  3. It appears that Facebook will, of its own free will, troll through your email contacts, if you have ever given it permission to look there. And it is not clear to me how one can withdraw that permission. At one point early in the game, I had let Facebook have the access to my Yahoo and Gmail contact lists so it could find Facebook users. But once they started doing the "People you may know" feature, it now seems like it is "revisiting" the contact list, and making suggestions from there. This, to me, seems like a privacy violation. I think Facebook should only have privilege to look at that list once and it should not retain access capability, and also should not maintain the list of contacts.
It's a fun program, for sure. And social networking is becoming a broad reality in our culture. But it's a bit scary that this one organization, Facebook, now knows everyone that we know, everything that we do, and everyone with whom we have ever been in electronic communication.