The Power of “I don’t know.”

So many times, when designing a software user interface, it’s helpful to ask yourself if you would enjoy interacting with a human being who talked to you the way the software did. If the answer is “no” then you have more work to do. Inevitably, this exercise gets turned on its head when user experience experts spend time dealing with actual human beings. Is my call to the sales or support staff of a company any less of a user experience than my interaction with their website or their app?

But often it seems like there is even less care given to the experience customers have with live human beings at a company than the interaction they have with the software. Nowhere is this more evident than the incredible aversion that many customer service personnel have to saying “I don’t know.” – which for bonus points can be preceded by “Good question.”, and followed by “Let me find out for you.”

I don’t think someone is dumb, or a company is awful when someone doesn’t know an answer to one of my questions. What does make me borderline insane is when they try to bullshit their way through an answer that I know is simply not true. And of course, once they start down this path, things can only get worse. If I gently give evidence that their answer is without a doubt wrong, it just makes them stick to their guns even more. Now that they’ve claimed to know, the only course of action is to back up their claim at all costs. And now, for disagreeing with the “expert” I’m the asshole.

Attention customer service departments and any business group that has people speak or interact with customers in any way. Rule #1 should be, it’s ok to say “I don’t know.” The customer may not get their answer immediately, but at least they won’t be subjected to some nuttiness that just wastes their time.

And while we’re at it, Rule #2 should be: if you ask a customer for their credit card number after they just typed it into their phone, you should be shot.

That is all.

Tiny Tower — When did videogames get ruined?

I have always considered myself a video game nerd. I grew up with an Atari 2600, an Atari 800, a Sega Genesis, a Dreamcast, a Playstation, and both Xboxes. I also played games on Macs, PCs, and even spent many hours of my youth playing games in actual arcades. Pretty typical for many guys my age and background. Over the last 10-15 years something happened that put me further on the periphery of gaming. I don’t know if it’s the nausea I feel playing first person shooters, or just my lack of interest in blowing shit up, but most games seemed not for me. More recent games that I have loved included SimCity, Age of Empires, Escape Velocity, World of Warcraft, Diablo II, Railroad Tycoon, Torchlight, Lego Star Wars, etc. I know there’s some mayhem in these games, but each of them has an emphasis on collecting things, building things, or exploring things as well. Those are the things I enjoy. (And in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve spent plenty of time playing Angry Birds, Bejeweled, various Scrabble games, and more.)

I have not played Farmville or other games of that ilk. I get uncomfortable spamming my friends (unless it’s something I’m selling), and paying to advance in a game (rather than to unlock new content) feels unfun to me.

When I first saw Tiny Tower I was enamored of the 8-bit graphics, the jazzy soundtrack, and the memories it brought up of one of my favorite games of yesteryear — Yoot Saito’s SimTower. It was free in the app store. I downloaded it to my iPad and started playing. The goal of the game is to build your tower with a mix of residential and commercial floors, keeping your ‘bitizens’ employed in jobs they like and are good at, and keeping your commercial ventures stocked with inventory and making you cash to spend on more floors. There are plenty of artificial delays built into the game that you can skip by spending some of the ‘TowerBux’ you can earn (or purchase via in-app purchase).

I’m no expert on game mechanics and psychology, but I know enough to know that while levels usually require progressively more investment, they also yield progressively more exciting rewards. Not so in Tiny Tower. The only thing that appears to increase in Tiny Tower with each level is the amount of time you have to spend to get anything done. Now… I understand why this is. They’re hoping at some point that I reach my breaking point and give in spending actual dollars in exchange for TowerBux that I’ll use to accelerate my progress. My pain increased exponentially while my rewards moved linearly. A very different dynamic, despite which I achieved 100 floors in Tiny Tower (evidence below) without any in-app purchases or cheating. (I also had 164 of my 182 Bitizens in their dream jobs at this point.

When my wife and I used to play lots of Age of Empires she would invariably look up the cheat codes. Driving her huge American car all over the maps and shooting anything that moved was fun for her. But for me the cheating was a novelty but not fun. And it was only something I chose to do after I’d exhausted the gameplay. She went straight to the cheating. I’m not making an ethical statement (it’s just a video game) but I really can’t distinguish between the Age of Empire cheat codes, and the TinyTower in-app purchases (or buying black market gold for WOW for that matter).

I understand that this is where the money is these days in games. And the number of people who would pay 99 cents (or even 199 cents, or — amazingly — even 499 cents) for a Tiny Tower that was tuned for regular gameplay is probably dwarfed by the number of people who want to pay to get ahead. I wonder what would happen if they made two versions. One for people who like to work/play hard to earn achievements, and another for people who like to pay their way to the front of the line and see which one makes more money over the long term. In my version the developer could even use the in-app purchase system to let me buy access to a second tower, or other cool features.

Here’s my prediction (which of course is worth what you’re paying for it)… paying to advance in games is clearly popular (even though I find it decidedly unfun myself). And while I understand that it’s letting companies like Zynga essentially print cash, I think it’s got a short shelf life. Just as it seems consumers are getting bored with daily deals, I think they’ll get bored with games that are just designed to inflict pain in exchange for actual cash. Well… I hope that’s the case. Otherwise, i foresee even fewer video games in my future. (Maybe we’ll have to make some games just to have something enjoyable to play.)

Creative User Interfaces Aren’t Just for Movies

Recently I saw an article about a new startup called Small Demons. The premise was vague, but had something to do with the publishing industry. Being interested in publishing I signed up to be notified of their launch. Today I went to their website and was introduced to their premise of cataloging real world details mentioned in books and visualizing the connections between them. OK.

Cataloging large amounts of data with interesting connections and visual representations is always a fun user interface challenge. There are usually lots of opportunities to do something interesting with the UI. And the video (starring ubiquitous hipster startup video spokesperson whose name currently escapes me) doesn’t disappoint. Well, at least not at first. The video is set in a room full of books with our friend slowly explaining what the site does. Details from books are flying out of said books in 2.5 dimensions. UI is hanging in the air and sliding all over the place. Very creative. Lovely and inspirational aesthetic. On point and well done.

Our friend is grabbing details from the air and using them in real life. Really fancy.

And then the UI of the actual experience makes an appearance. What a fucking disappointment.

Hey there boring grid on white background. Nice to see you… AGAIN! There’s nothing wrong with a grid or white background per se. But where’s all the inspiration from the UI that was in the video? Where’s the aesthetic? (Or any aesthetic?) Where are the small details that reinforce why I’m on this site passionately combing through the “Storyverse” as they call it. The people who made this video clearly understood how to articulate the passion behind the site in a visually expressive and inspiring form. Could those people have not been used to design the user interface that the users would actually use? It’s like the difference between the picture of the steaming, delicious, appetizing, tasty burrito on the box of frozen burritos and the actual mess that comes out of my microwave.

No. I don’t expect the service to deposit me in a 3d virtual world where i can wave my hands Minority Report style and navigate their interface (grabbing items from the virtual world into the digital world in the process). I’m sure there are lovely and smart people working on Small Demons and I wish it nothing but success, but this just seems like an opportunity lost. I would have hoped that the folks at Small Demons would see the contrast between the aspiration articulated in their video and their UI and realize that quite a bit more “special” was called for to deliver on the promise they made.

Perhaps in v2.

Showing off: The New eHarmony App for iPad is Gorgeous

As you may know, Jackson Fish Market is a bit of a hybrid business. We’re a software startup with products like A Story Before Bed and Thrilled for You, but we also have a user experience consulting side that helps other companies make their software special. We’ve worked with dozens of companies and are proud of all our collaborations. We also are wary of taking more than just a smidgeon of public credit for the results. While we are proud of the role we play, there’s a lot of work on those apps that goes beyond our design efforts to bring them to market.

But, we’re going to show off a little bit more than usual when it comes to the new eHarmony app for iPad. We’re proud of the work we did providing a deep set of initial designs for their app. But, the eHarmony team took the ball and ran with it. No… they sprinted with it. Not only was it amazing for a successful business to come to us with such open minds and hunger for innovation, but they took the work we did it and made it way better. They executed our contributions beautifully, but took them to the next level as well. Various transitions and animations are fantastic. Navigational systems were extended with style. And small touches of personality (make sure to tap the coffee in the coffee cup on the opening screen) are pixel perfect (not to mention adorable).

Even if you’re not looking for that perfect partner, I highly recommend you download eHarmony’s new app for the iPad. The screenshots below just don’t do it justice. This is an example of a next generation user experience that can’t be ignored. And here at Jackson Fish Market, we’re very glad to have played a small role in helping make it happen. Bravo eHarmony team.

Does HTML5 mean the end of the native app? (In other news… Phillips head screwdrivers will kill flat head screwdrivers!)

I just happened upon an article by Matt Marshall on Venture Beat: “How HTML5 will kill the native app.”

Ugh.

This article reads like an HTML5 marketing document. There’s good reason to be excited about HTML5. But I believe there are a couple of key things missing from this discussion:

1. The value of cross-platform code to developers is a myth. — Yes, many people say they would love to standardize on one platform and write once and save “billions”. But in reality, developers like to learn new skills, platforms, and languages. And clearly having to rewrite code to a brand new platform hasn’t stopped hundreds of thousands of apps getting written for iOS. The best modern developers are well-versed in a variety of client and web-based technologies and platforms, and recognize that one solution doesn’t fit all. And ultimately they, and the businesses that employ them will flock to any platform that has a real promise of commercial success and novel functionality no matter how much new code they have to write. Do we really think iOS is the last time that a new platform will attract tens of thousands of developers to write hundreds of thousands of new apps from scratch? If that’s true the software industry is dead.

2. HTML5 has still not addressed a critical piece of the UX — responsiveness. – HTML5 and it’s predecessor Flash have are not focused on the degree of responsiveness we demand from really polished software. It’s true that in many cases, we don’t need instant responses. And with the advent of AJAX style development web-based apps have come a long way from needing to reload the page every time you make a state change. However, the fundamental value of an HTML page (and app) being able to load progressively is often counter to the type of rock-solid responsiveness that we need from many software experiences. I know that most user’s will live with little delays and not even be able to articulate that there’s a problem. But like the soft click of a door closing on a well-engineered luxury car, customers do know when something just “feels right” (and conversely… when it doesn’t). When I can load thousands of items in a list on a webpage without having to do pagination, when that loading feels instantaneous (even though there may be progressive loading of the data into memory), and when scrolling feels smooth as butter and super fast, then I’ll feel like web apps are getting closer. I don’t think there’s a technical limitation on this per se in HTML5, it’s just that it’s not optimized for these types of interactions. Responsiveness is one of the unsung heroes of a polished user experience, and even with all its innovations and AJAX goodness, GMail can still be frustrating to use for heavy mail users.

To be clear, I’m a fan of HTML5 and here at Jackson Fish Market we will use it as appropriate. It’s a tool, like many other tools in our toolbox. We’ll use it when it’s the right tool for the job. And we’ll use other tools when they are appropriate. The most rational and easy to work with developers I know share this philosophy. I’ve found that developers who like to spend lots of time arguing about which tool is the “end all be all” are doing me a favor by letting me know up front that I shouldn’t be working with them.