Bruce McCarthy is Founder and Chief Product Person at UpUp Labs, where he and his team are at work on Reqqs - the smart roadmap tool for product people.


User>Driven highlighted by Squarespace

I use a service called Squarespace to host User>Driven. It's reasonably priced and the interface is highly customizable. I can organize the blog, forums and other content however I like. They take care of the RSS feed and even provide basic traffic stats.

Squarespace recently added User>Driven to its "best of" example sites under Design, citing its use of "brown space" instead of white space in the layout.

Incidentally, one reader suggested the font might be too small on the site. Any feedback on that or other design or layout issues from others? 





2006 Hall of Fame & Shame

I'd like to solicit your input on a User>Driven Hall of Fame and Shame. The goal is to compile the top 10 usability triumphs and top ten usability gaffs of 2006 as nominated by you.

Take 10 seconds right now and think of the one thing (product, service, website, software, gadget, whatever) that really works for you, that's so elegant in its design and operation it must be the result of a good feedback loop between the product designers and its intended users. Write down your first thought in reply to this entry.

Then take 10 more seconds and think of the one thing (same list) that really irks you every time you have to use it because the product designer clearly did not take the time to think about how it would really be used or try it out on one real-life person before getting it to market. Write that down too and hit reply.

Thanks to Claire Gribbin for this excellent suggestion!  

My nominations

My nomination for a highly User>Driven item in 2006 is Shutterfly. They're not new. In fact, I've used them for the last 3 or 4 years. But I used this online picture card service twice this year and it saves me so much trouble, I think it deserves nomination.

The way it works is this. You upload your address book (.csv format from Excel, Outlook or even a text editor) and digital pictures you want to use. You can drag and drop individual photos into the browser from your desktop or upload whole rafts of files easily. You choose from their library of holiday cards, party invitations, photo postcards, or whatever. They merge everything and print them for you. They'll send them to you to address and personal notes or (and this is the great part) they'll address and mail them all for you to the people you choose from your address book. You can even add personal notes to individual cards for the people most special to you.

Even better, once you've given them your address book once it's always there, so next year at holiday time you just make a few updates, adds and deletes, upload a new photo and you're good to go. It took me all of an hour to get over a hundred holiday cards out this year. I also used it to send invitations to a family reunion this summer. This service is so effortless, my parents have started using it for their Christmas cards.

My nomination for a a product or service that is clearly *not* User>Driven in 2006 is the new Comcast DVR. I swapped this into my living room setup a few months ago when my ReplayTV started flaking out on me. I'd have gotten another Replay unit but the Comcast unit has two tuners so it can record one program while you watch another and it can record HDTV. (Yes, I got sucked in by the new features.)

When I first got the DVR, though, I discovered there was no search capability. The only way to find shows to record was to scroll through all the listings channel-by-channel and hour-by-hour. Not only did I have to know when the shows were on and on what channel, but I couldn't even jump from day to day. If it was Sunday and I wanted to record a show on Saturday, I had to scroll through every intervening hour.

A couple of months later I was delighted to discover Comcast had added a search feature. Customers had probably complained and Comcast must have listened! I was quickly disappointed, however, when I realized how poorly the search had been implemented. You can use the remote to enter up to five letters to search on, but they must be the first 5 letters of the name of the show as it appears in their listings. There is no search by actors, directors, description (as there is with ReplayTV), or any part of the name other than the first 5 letters. It's better than scrolling through listings, but not by much. The search features of TiVo and ReplayTV are so well-thought-out and usable by contrast, that it seems obvious Comcast did no research on the way real people would actually use the product. They had a request for a search feature and they provided one. And they probably are baffled at why they still get complaints about people not being able to find the shows they want.

To be fair to Comcast, it records well and I like watching the shows in HD. The interface is just so clumsily designed, though, that it annoys me every time I try to set up a new show for recording. And it could be so much better if they just spent a little time testing it with users. Hell, if they just copied their competitors I'd have no reason to complain.

Your turn

So those are my nominations. Now it's your turn. Even if your favorite product or service isn't new for 2006, if you used it this year, put it down. (I did.) Also, it's okay to simply vote for something someone else has submitted if you've actually used the thing they nominated. I'll rank the final top ten lists by how many votes they get (and/or my personal biases).

It's 20 seconds, what are you waiting for!


iTrackr on the right track

Like many folks, I am tasked with tracking down a scarce commodity for Christmas. In my case, it's the Nintendo Wii game console. We've been to several electronics retailers in the area and the story is always the same. They are sold out; they expect to get more but they have no idea when; they expect to sell out again quickly when the new units arrive.

This story is familiar to anyone who wanted a PS3 this year or an XBox 360 last year, a Tickle-Me Elmo or a Cabbage Patch doll. So I was immediately intrigued when I read about a service that's just out of beta called iTrackr. The service claims to keep track of the inventory of such scarce commodities at a list of stores all around the country and to update it every few hours. You tell them the stores you want to track and they send you an email or SMS message when the item you want is in stock at a store near you. Pretty neat, huh?

iTrackr is also quite reasonably priced (in fact, I think it may be under-priced) at $1.98 for a month's tracking of a single product. I was happy to take a chance on finding a Wii even with this untried service for such a small amount. I was even able to pay via PayPal, which made it quick, easy and secure. I entered my data and was surprised to learn that 5 out of 12 retailers in my area showed the product in stock, including an EB Games near my office I'd been to only the day before. Unfortunately when I got to the store as they opened the next morning, they said they were out of stock and hadn't received a shipment the day before as iTrackr had claimed.

There are also some usability issues that hinder me in using the service but I want to give the company full credit for actively seeking feedback and for being responsive to it. They not only have a feedback link at the bottom of every page, but someone from the company replied to me by personal email over night with a partial workaround and news about new features planned that will go some way to addressing my issues. This is the sort of user-driven attitude that I predict will quickly correct issues with the service and maximizes their chances of a successful business long term.

Work and home 

Suburbanites like me may still find the 10-mile radius too limiting, however, even if it's 10 miles around two ZIP codes. Where I live there are many Targets, Best Buys, Circuit Citys, GameStops and EB Games I might like to track, but only two of them are within 10 miles of my home ZIP code. The iTrackr rep suggested I could enter the ZIP code of, say, the Target I wanted to track, but this has two issues. First, I don't know that ZIP code. I could look it up, but iTrackr should have a quick town-to-ZIP code lookup capability like the USPS website. Second (and more importantly), the stores I would like to track aren't clustered in one area. They  are scattered in all directions, 40 minutes one way or 40 minutes another. So to make a comprehensive survey of stores I'd be willing to drive to, I'd have to go through the setup process about half a dozen times. Worse, the service will only allow me to get email and SMS updates on my most recent settings, so I would have to go through this process every day myself, entirely defeating the purpose of the automatic alert feature that defines the service. They simply need to expand the radius to something large like 50 miles or perhaps list the 50 nearest stores regardless of distance from your home ZIP.

False positives

The second issue is the false positives. The EB Games near my office was one of 7 stores in my search radius that listed Wiis in stock, but I was skeptical after my first store visit. So I pinged the iTrackr rep again and the next day iTrackr popped up with a note letting users know that EB Games and GameStop stores (which are owned by the same company) are "very slow" to update their inventory and admonishing users to call before they visit the store. This is, of course, aggravating, but refreshingly honest.

I have to admit to some skepticism about the demand for the service outside the Christmas season. Yes, everyone has birthdays, anniversaries and other gift-giving occasions sprinkled throughout the year, but it is always Christmas that seems to result in the scarcity that makes this service potentially valuable.

But if it's possible to make money here, I think iTrackr has a good chance. Their consistent responsiveness to customers while deep in startup frenzy and holiday shopping season, shows they have the right attitude. If nothing else, they are retaining the goodwill of users by showing they care. More importantly, though, they are acting on the feedback by setting expectations in the short term and making improvements as they can.





Image anxiety at Polaroid

Polaroid, that one-time monument to technical innovation and usability, was trying hard to move ahead after years of standing still. This was the early 90s and I had been asked to help a small department in their Cambridge Campus modernize, revitalize, and sell itself internally. It turned out to be harder than I thought, and in the end the effort failed because at least some of the people involved were unable to listen to the honest feedback of their customers: the other departments at the company.

I got a Polaroid Swinger instant camera when I was about 9 and it was the most fun I'd ever had with a birthday present. I bought other Polaroids over the years until my girlfriend (now wife), Chris, bought me a manual Pentax K1000 35mm camera while we were in college. I got a lot of enjoyment out of these easy-to-use instant gratification toys over the years and so I was looking forward to working with people at Polaroid when I got this consulting assignment because they so clearly knew how to give users what they wanted.

The department that hired me was a small internal service bureau that produced all manner of materials for the other Cambridge offices, both for internal and external use. I worked with them on materials from internal safety signage to demo slides for the launch of the then-new Polaroid instant postscript slide maker. My toughest assignment, though, was promoting the department itself.

The department had invested in new desktop publishing equipment, software and training, and wanted to attract business from around the company that would allow them to expand their budget and staff and generally prosper.  They asked me to pull together their promotion plan, and the first thing I did was to interview several people outside the department who represented their current and potential customers.

I learned that the department suffered from a reputation internally for being backward. They were perceived as low tech, slow to deliver, and a bit clunky in execution. I knew that times had changed in the group, though, and that they were capable of slick, professional work. I tried out various ways of positioning and pitching the department that were pointed at the concerns I heard and got feedback on the efficacy of each from my interview subjects. One of the simplest and most effective was to simply list all the new equipment and software they had acquired in the last year, including the new Polaroid slide maker, which was perceived as cutting edge. Polaroid's hardware- and engineering-driven culture responded to this nuts and bolts approach. Several of the people I spoke to had projects they planned to bid out and just based on the information I had given them expressed their intention to include the department in their RFP process.

I prepared my plan and presented it to the management team of the department, confident I had the right messaging to change the department's fortunes. To my dismay, however, we got stuck very early in the discussion on the problem statement. I had written explicitly that the department suffered from a perception of their work that was no longer true. I explained this both because it was true (the customers had told me this directly) and because it neatly teed up the messaging I had devised to combat that perception (that customers had told me worked for them).

But one of the managers objected to this statement because he felt it reflected badly on the department. What if someone reads this plan and believes the perception is true, he argued. I countered that my research showed that people already thought it was true, so they had nothing to lose. Most importantly, though, I explained that you can't solve a problem if you don't get it out in the open and understand it.

The meeting went downhill from there. The messages I'd devised and tested were perceived as defensive. Once again I countered with research. Their own customers had responded well to the messages because they addressed their real concerns. I explained that there was pent-up demand for their services if only they could make it clear they could deliver. They preferred a message that touted their expertise, experience, and professionalism but backed up with no specifics.

I checked back about a year later. The manager who'd brought me in had transferred out of the department to a better position and the senior manager she worked for had taken early retirement. The department dissolved entirely not long after.

The lesson was clear to me and it reinforced my conviction that there is no more important voice in any disagreement than that of the customer. As I moved on from marketing consulting to product management, I saw my job as finding every way possible to bring the customer into the picture. You've got to see yourself as others see you, even if you don't like the image you see, because it's that image that will determine your fate.


Other not-quite-there solutions

As a followup to my entry on Google docs, here are a few of the note-taking solutions I've either tried or read enough about to reject in the last year or two, along with a few thoughts about each.

Google docs: as discussed above, this is the best so far but it's missing robust two-way integration between online and offline editing.

EditMe: I use EditMe for my own personal wiki. It has security model that allows me to share what I want with individuals or groups, but it's difficult to administer and the WYSIWYG editor is quirky and sometimes unpredictable. You have to build your own navigation structure, otherwise you are left with a simple index by page title. There is no offline editing mode.

JotSpot: I tried JotSpot and found the note-taking and task list features in the web-based interface to be pretty slick. Their pricing model made it so that you ended up paying a lot after creating only a few pages, though, so I found myself trying to reuse pages and cram as much onto each as possible to avoid paying. Eventually it became unmanageable and I stopped using it.

Microsoft OneNote: I tried this based on the recommendation of a fried who uses it every day in his consulting business. It was developed as a note-taking app for tablet PCs and it can accept pen input. Like JotSpot, it alows you to create a notebook full of pages with specialized purposes like task lists, web clippings, meeting notes, etc. It is strictly an offline, one computer solution, though. Also, as I often do with MS products, I found the interface to be a bit clumsy and overbearing.

EverNote: I read about this today as a competitor to OneNote. It has innovative ways of organizing your notes with multiple category tags (much like Gmail), as well as specialized formatting for task lists, etc. Like OneNote, you can also drag in all sorts of content from other apps, like photos, text, links, etc. Also like OneNote, though, it is an offline-only solution at the moment. (See my note below for more on this topic.)

Google Notebook: I have just downloaded this slick little app. It consists of a small browser plug-in that allows you to collect links and clippings as you browse. It's ideal as a tool for web research, but it is restricted to use within the browser and (obviously) while online. You can access your notes from any browser, but again, not while offline.

Lotus Notes:  I used Notes for years as an email program, meeting scheduler, and document creation/organizing/sharing system. It is very powerful but not intuitive or easy to use, particularly if you want to selectively share or search content you've created. There is a web interface for access from any connected computer, but I found it clumsy and limited and you need your IT department to set up and manage it. It's an industrial age solution in an information age world.

Groove: Groove was created to be a web-based successor to Lotus Notes and was actually worked by many of the original team. It shows in the quirky ways the product works, I think. It designed from the ground up for sharing, but at least originally it was a peer-to-peer model that meant at least two members of a group needed to be online with Groove running for one to access documents. Like eRoom, it became mostly a repository for Office documents created and edited offline.

eRoom: I use eRoom at ATG today for shared access to documents. Not everyone is using it, but it's quite usable as essentially an online repository. It suffers from difficulties with searching for content and I find people don't trust that the information they find there is up to date, often calling me to double check. Also, though there are special forms for creating and editing documents right in eRoom, I find that people use Word, PowerPoint, and Excel and just post the docs in eRoom. Offline editing of Office docs is supported, but offline access to those docs is not, so you have to download something before you leave the office in order to read or edit it on the road.

Microsoft Outlook: The king of email, Outlook is also used for calendaring, note-taking, task lists, and contact management. I've had my contacts database in Outlook for quite a few years, taking it with me from company to company. Group calendaring is somewhat unreliable, but it has become the standard so people use it. Few people I've talked to use the notes or task list functionality as it is rather limited. Notes are in a simple categorized list and has only basic text editing features. The task list was at one time fairly customizable with rules and filters, but a bug in my edition of Outlook 2003 prevents my customizations from being saved, so I have ceased using it. Outlook content is also accessible from a browser and the features of the web interface have recently been upgraded with AJAX techniques making it fairly usable in recent versions of IE for Windows. It works less reliably in Firefox and very poorly in Safari, however. The key thing that works well in Outlook is universal access to your content. Nearly everything in Outlook, including the email in your inbox, your personal notes, your task list, your calendar, etc. is accessible in the program and on the server for Web access from any PC any time. Even offline, you can access and edit your content in Outlook and then send email and synch changes with the server when you are connected again. The exception is email you've filed away in your personal folders. This is stored on your local drive so it's only accessible from your computer.

Notepad: I've tried and failed to use so many different means for managing task lists and notes that I've gone back to basics as far as possible without resorting to paper. It's only accsible on my laptop and I can't share it or put anything into it but text, but the interface is so simple it never gets in my way. Because it only runs on one machine, I am still jotting notes to myself on paper or in emails when away from my laptop. And if I want to share some notes I've taken, I cut and paste them into another document and clean them up. This is not the solution I am looking for, but I can't find that solution, it is the simplest substitute. I think it says a lot about how far these other apps have to go that they are not enough better than Notepad to make me want to use them.

The CEO of EverNote said someting in a recent interview with CNET that I thought illustrated what is missin to one degree or another from all of these solutions. He said, "we are not releasing our mobile version, which is ready, because synchronization is not ready. It is the most difficult component of this equation." I think it is also the most important component.