July 31st 2014

A simple turing test for auto callers

This afternoon, while sitting in my childhood house with an actual land line, I got called by some robo system operated by questionable charity. When I asked if this is a real person it kept saying yes. So I asked it what day of the week it is. That confused it. It told me that it “didn’t want to give me the wrong information.” When I insisted that it answer my question. it flatly told me “no.”

Eventually, it relented and transferred me to its “manager.” I asked the manager what day of the week it was. She replied Thursday and thus passed my Turing Test.

Tagged: robocaller



July 28th 2014

The novelty of ratings and recommendation engines

In a review of college ranking systems, the Times hints why it’s so difficult to built a novel recommendation app whether it’s for colleges, restaurants or anything else:

"The mark of a good new college rankings system — or, at least, an interesting one — is a deft combination of familiarity and surprise. Publish a list of nothing but unknown colleges and you lose credibility. Simply replicate the U.S. News hierarchy and you haven’t done anything worthy of attention. "

Tagged: ux @bigdata



July 9th 2014

Camera angles at #worldcup

For most people watching the World Cup in the US, ESPN and ESPN.com are the main places to catch the games. I wish their choice of camera angles was more aggressive. For most of the game, the default angle is half the field, approximating an upper bleacher seat. A viewer can see all the options open for a player to pass the ball as well as the quality of the defense, but some of the immediacy is lost in the wide angles.

Instant replays, and almost all still photos of the game provided by wire services, zoom in to at least the height of the players. These shots are often from the field level. They put the viewer at the level of the action and make the game play more three dimensional. When the facial expressions, tattoos and even the rare rat tail are visible, it adds texture to the game.

As technology improves, it’s likely that broadcast (or still) cameras that follow the game will be largely automated, moving in sync with the ball. Even before that happens, I wish ESPN would use closer camera angles more consistently to make the game more exciting and immediate to watch.

Tagged: ux worldcup espn



July 8th 2014

Wacky pricing at half.com

One of the pitfalls of having a market place where various options for the same product are offered by various sellers is that they don’t always make sense when appearing side-by-side, like when used books are listed for more than new ones. In this case, it’s almost $10 more (50% more) to rent a book than to buy it permanently. 

Tagged: ux pricing



June 24th 2014

JFK’s portrait by Taxi

Eric Fischer made this beautiful image of JFK as part of his rendering of NYC taxi data. Blue represents pick ups orange represents drop offs.

Tagged: opendata nyc



June 17th 2014

Mischief bots from Colbert Report team

A Business Week profile of the tech team behind the Colbert Report reminds me that I don’t spend enough time writing code that’s mischievous if not subversive. I’m impressed with their @OliviaTaters bot written to troll tweeters in the vernacular of a modern Valley Girl and their Amazon random shopper robot that has free reign to buy whatever it sees fit up to a maximum price.

It’s disappointing that corporate hackathons have largely gong out of fashion in NYC. Although most of them were premised on the unrealistic idea that professional programmers should come in to work overnight to create immediate solutions to large and complex strategic issues in exchange for pizza, the 24-hour format is well suited to muck around with the sponsor’s API’s and build something random and whimsical.

Tagged: ux colbert



June 13th 2014

@amazon still tops for customer service

Customer service ultimately boils down to whether a company will take ownership of an issue in a timely fashion. For Amazon, the most powerful evidence of this commitment is the “Did I solve your problem?” yes/no survey. In a rarity among companies, clicking it actually escalates the issue to someone who can take action.

At the time, I had been speaking to a customer service rep about receiving the wrong item in an order. I had received a large tub of protein powder because the packaging vaguely resembled my original item. (I first knew something was wrong when I got a box much larger and heavier than I was expecting.) I was able to get a replacement, but was annoyed to wait another week for it to arrive. The woman was sympathetic but there wasn’t anything more she could do.

When the survey came, I clicked “no.” Amazingly, it gave me the option to have someone else call me from Amazon. During that call, the one week delivery window became “next day.” And the following morning, a full refund had been granted without asking.

All this happened before I had a chance to drop off the protein powder for its return trip to Amazon.

Also this week, I received an email from Open Table. I had asked them how I could change a one-in-a-lifetime reservation from 4 to 3. Their website would not let me do that without cancelling outright. Twenty three days later they suggested something I had figured out on my own: call the restaurant and tell them myself.

Tagged: ux amazon



June 10th 2014

@linkedin #Following button can’t be unclicked

There’s a button with a checkmark labeled following. It’s grayed out. Clicking on it won’t remove the checkmark. There’s also a blue link also labeled following. It can’t be clicked either. I’m not ready to defriend this connection yet, but I would like an easier way to remove his posts from my LinkedIn feed.

Tagged: ux



June 3rd 2014

#wwdc #swift will democratize iphone apps

In the frenzy to report the new versions of OS X and IOS, Swift barely got mentioned. Yes, the home automation and health integration functions are exciting, but they still need apps to make them run.

In an age where it seems like anyone with a few evenings free can make an app like Flappy Bird, the reality is more nuanced. It’s less simple and elegant than swiping right on Tindr. It has required mastering Xcode and Objective C, whose development models seem rooted in the early 1990’s. Creating a simple application to display “Hello World” took an unusually large amount of setup and overhead to organize.

Microsoft has had a 25 year head start with Visual Basic and later C#. Those languages combined with Visual Studio let a user put a button on the screen in less than a minute to flash “Hello World” to all comers. They let the user focus on getting the user interface right without worrying about obscure libraries and memory management rituals. This is one of the reasons why Windows has traditionally had far more business software than OS X — it’s been far easier for a corporate IT department or application vendor to write.

I am sure that there are thousands of people who have had ideas for touch-based apps but found Xcode to be off-putting. I’ll freely admit that I’m one of them. I’m excited to see if Swift will unleash a new generation of apps by newly empowered developers.

Tagged: wwdc swift



May 13th 2014

EU Court allows electronic bankruptcy #google

It’s been reported by the BBC and others that Google must now comply with EU court orders to remove links to adverse but correct search results for a Spanish man.

The ruling is novel but perhaps not as unexpected as one would think. Courts, particularly in the USA, have frequently recognized the right of citizens to move on from their mistakes over time. In bankruptcy proceedings, this can mean the erasure of debts. In civil and criminal cases, the statue of limitations can limit prosecution.

It’s been proposed before that teenagers, lacking self-control and maturity, should have some ability to erase their public digital past.

While Google refused to remove links without a court ruling, other companies have complied voluntarily in the past. A journalism mentor once told me the story of a guy whose drunk driving arrest was recorded by a TV station. Every time they reported on drunk driving, they’d play the file footage from that day. Eventually, the guy got tired of it. He told the TV station that he had served his debt to society and wanted to move on.

They agreed. The went to the archives and erased all footage of his arrest, making sure that it could not be used in future stories.

Tagged: ux privacy