Sunday, April 29, 2007

The future: Stories and interactivity

April 29, 2012:
Forget the Itoothbrush. That’s so 15 minutes ago. This month’s gadget is the Ibutton, which allows users to scan printed words and images and get sounds into their music players. Folks also use it to scan for Internet addresses, which they can later send into their computers for further surfing.

The technology will soon be incorporated into Iphones and Blueberrries, which folks also use at the grocery instead of debit and credit cards. This year’s killer device combines all into one, which forgetful boomers are calling their external brains. The gadget can even locate car keys, glasses and other easily misplaced items, by sending a signal to the errant thing, which then emits a unique sound.

J.K. Rowling is about to launch her next Harry Potter story despite her best intentions. In this one, Harry is about to graduate from Cambridge and doesn’t know what to do with his life. All he knows is that he can’t become a boomerang child, like many of his peers. Jobs are hard to come by, and parents welcome the kids back because someone has to mow the lawn. Hermione is deciding between med school and a lucrative, rare offer from Goohooazon, which employs all the journalists and techies who haven’t retired.

“I didn’t continue it for the money,” Rowling said. “The characters just would not go away, and I got tired of all those amateurs writing my creations’ destinies and posting them on Facespace and Ourtube and Third Life. They’re my bloody inventions, and I’d like to control their destinies.

“The hard part is that I have to spend so much time in Third Life protecting my characters’ identities. Then I squeeze in writing during my kids’ futball games.”

So it goes for working moms, always. Rowling hired a Third Life assistant for a while, but finding the right person is difficult. All the best candidates are mowing their parents’ lawns or working for Goohooazon.

The professional storytellers learned a couple of years ago that the best oasis was Goohooazon, since it had a business model for making stories pay. Some free newspapers still exist, designed to work with the Ibutton. They’re owned by Goohooazon, of course, but the best journalists can still specialize in one or two mediums.

Residents of both Carolinas and Tennessee get Internet access at a bargain, only $99.99 a month, because they passed laws for large wind farms to power Goohooazon servers. Some Goohooazon money also supports libraries, which have expanded to serve those who crave access to The Washington Post’s “On Being” series. Goohooazon rightly kept The WashPost brand and the NYT brand alive when it acquired the papers.

So Goohooazon beckons folks like Hermione, because it’s better than working for Wabofia Bank, which found a way to get rid of the word “America” in its name during the last merger. In a time of serial oil wars, its brand was wearing thin.

But medicine lures Hermione too, because some older folks want to implant their external brains between their ears.

Hope still exists.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Persona No. 2, class assignment

Edward Durham, aka Mojo Nojo on the forum boards, zip code 55410, a neighbor of Robert Schroeder's at Cindy's blog. He's buying and renovating an older Victorian house near Scott Kennedy, zip code 55105, at Gerry's blog.

Age/education/health: 70, retired, has artificial knees, occasional bouts of arthritis, wears reading glasses that seem to get weaker every day
Gender/family lifecycle stage:
older male, third marriage, three grown children. The closest one is his son, who has three children of his own, in a small town about an hour north. His son visits about once a month to work with his dad on the renovation project.
Location and housing type: Mid-size single family home, working on renovating a large Victorian.
Occupation: Retired contractor, retired antique shop owner, retired small grocery owner; bachelor's degree, highly skilled with all kinds of building, accounting and marketing; freelance blogger.
Social class: Working/middle class family. Has been an entrepreneur running his own businesses since about 1972, has always believed in the power of taking risks in order to earn money, strongly committed to personal responsibility. His dad died when he was 15, and everything he's achieved since then has been through his own hard work.
Personality: Outgoing, driven, a little sad and resigned at the coming of age and far-flung families.
Attitudes: Interested in architecture, antiques, community, politics, the Internet and media. Thinks most media is biased, and didn't embrace this new Internet stuff until he realized it was a way to get his voice heard. Now he's obsessed.
White, of Dutch/Norwegian/English heritage. Very proud of his pioneer roots in Minnesota. No organized religion, but strongly embraces Judeo-Christian values, except when they infringe on personal freedoms. Converted to Catholicism briefly for Wife No. 2. Oh well.
Lifestyle motivations: Action-oriented risk taker. Frustrated by his aging body's inability to do as much as he'd like. Traveled across the country numerous times.
Media interests: Loves to hate the local newspapers, to which he subscribes. Reads Time, not Newsweek. Visits the National Rifle Association's website frequently. Reads AARP magazine. Doesn't shop online, doesn't trust the computers to keep his financial information secure. Wife uses Ebay frequently, though, for antique hunting and selling.
Type of computer user: skilled, on Blogger and using various forums, but doesn't like change. Goes to the same places all the time, doesn't seek out new tools or sites. Uses email when he has to, mostly leaves that to his wife, the family communicator. He communicates instead on website forums. Or he has in the past, until one local newspaper blew his forums away and replaced it with newfangled stuff aimed at people NOT like him -- young, hip people.
Type of computer equipment: Desktop PC, circa 2004. Uses Explorer browser, hates that Blogger seems to be trying to get him to change to Firefox. Uses Windows Media Player.
Type of Internet usage: High-speed broadband, but he curses the monthly cost.
User Status: Regular
Usage rate: Heavy
Loyalty Status: Absolute, but easily disappointed and then holds a grudge.
Usage goals: Finding ways to get his voice and experience heard, through forums and his blog. His forum name is Mojo Nojo, and other forum readers come to him for help and advice. He's well respected on the boards, but sometimes cusses and fumes too much.
Emotional goals: Trying to fix this world that's going to hell in a handbasket; connecting with family and his online friends, most of whom he's never met in person.
Task context: Users computer as an individual user, in a bedroom converted into an office. Gets on very early in the morning when he can't sleep, and sometimes late at night when he's had a drink or three.
Accessibility: Some visual impairment because of age, loves the way he can make type bigger these days on most websites. Hates dark-background blogs. Can't sit for long periods of time because of circulation below his artificial knees.

Goals: Finding ways to tell his stories and share his experience. He's learned much over his 70 years, and his children and grandchildren aren't close enough for him to give advice to very frequently. He longs to be heard, and he sees much wrong with the world these days. Maybe if people will just listen, he can make a difference.

Eddie learned to type well when he was a young man and had a stint in the Army Reserves. It's a rare skill for men his age, and it has helped give him an outlet on the Internet that few his age have.
In 2004, his son gave him the PC as a present, a way to do email with his relatives in several faraway cities. He discovered the forums at a local newspaper, and found a way to connect with others and make his points. He loved it, and soon spent hours sitting at the computer, taking breaks to stretch his legs and work his artificial knees.
The forums became a home on the Internet, so when one of the local papers decided to revamp its site to appeal to younger surfers, he felt disrespected. (Not that he would ever use that word that way). He keeps getting the message that as a customer, he's not as valuable as that sweet 18-34 demographic. He's been running his own businesses for years; he understands and respects marketing concepts and the need to make money, but as an individual, he thinks it's absolutely wrong for society to quit listening to its elders. He knows from personal experience that they have much knowledge.
So when the newspaper website blew away all his 6,000 postings, he created his own blog, teaching himself the software. He didn't spend too much time on its appearance, and he didn't have to. He felt it was the words that were valuable, and the links to other websites that echoed his own opinions. People need to read this stuff, he felt, and it has to be legible and easy to comment on, but beyond that, he doesn't want bells and whistles.
Since then, he's used the blog to point out the many inaccuracies and oversights at the local papers, and he still sometimes posts to their new forums. When he seizes an idea, he's a bulldog when it comes to searching on the web to find out all the facts that he can, and he's developed a following among some of the old forum users. About 100 of them have migrated to his blog from the newspaper's site, and about 20 of those are active posters. Some have even created their own blogs at his urging, and they actively link among themselves.
Some people at forums have criticized his postings in the past, because he calls it as he sees it, just like he would if he were actually sitting in a local bar. If those other folks don't like his language, his jokes or his opinions, they can just go somewhere else. As he did. He's hoping this new Twin Cities Paper will find a way to recreate forums for his already-active online community, and maybe his blog can get some publicity out of it. That Adsense money helps buy paint for the house he's renovating.
Why he's important to He's a leader in an online community, and he possibly has 10 to 20 more years of active forum and blogging use. While he's beyond the target market of many current online advertisers, his demographic, if measured carefully through analytic software, would be great for small hardware stores, Home Depot and Lowes. His need for simplicity can help site designers keep a check on their bells and whistles, if he's given a way to get feedback to those designers.

Persona No. 1, class assignment

Jessica Tatum, zip code 55105, Macalester College.
Age/education/health: 19, sophomore in college, public urban high school, great health
Gender/family lifecycle stage: young female, single, no children. Oldest child of three.
Location and housing type: Dorm with focus on German language, Macalester College. Considering going off-campus sharing an apartment next year with some international students who are friends.
Occupation: Student, barista, volunteer at homeless shelter, school blogger
Social class: Middle class family. Dad's banker, mom's at home, does some volunteer work
Personality: Outgoing, driven, a little afraid of the direction the world is going in. Closely guards any digital photos of herself, because she's gorgeous, and an old boyfriend had photos that spread across the Internet like wildfire. Even fought the university about posting her photo on the blog that she wrote for work-study for the school's website; made her case and won. Refuses to be a poster child for mixed-race students, sees herself as much more than that.
Attitudes: Interested in shopping, clothes, science, human rights, Africa, Germany. Considers the Internet a tool, not a destination.
Ethnicity/religion: Multi-racial/some moderate Baptist background. Considers herself outside of both white and African-American cultures, but able to "cross over." Dad's African-American, former military, met her mom while stationed in Germany. Mom's German but has been in the U.S. for 22 years now.
Lifestyle motivations:
Status-oriented, achiever, striver, survivor.
Media interests: InStyle, Seventeen (when Atoosa was there), Itunes (everything!), her hometown paper sometimes if someone tells her something's there she should read, fiction when she has time.
Type of computer user: skilled, on Microsoft Word, not Excel. Basic blogging tools, strong search skills on Google, strong familiarity with online shopping tools, no hesitation about purchasing items over the Internet. Often uses Mapquest. Youtube, IMovie, Garageband, Moodle (course software).
Type of computer equipment: Mac, 15-inch Powerbook, of course.
Type of Internet usage: High-speed Ethernet cable in the dorm, since it's fast, and wireless on campus when she can find a signal. She's been known to walk around with the Powerbook open, looking for a signal, like the guy in the "Can you hear me now?" phone commercial.
User Status: Regular
Usage rate: Heavy
Loyalty Status: Absolute, but always seeking the next greatest gadget or website.
Usage goals: Social networking, classwork, keeping in touch with home, music, watching TV shows she missed because of class or social activities
Emotional goals: Connecting with friends, belonging, achieving in school
Task context: Uses computer as an individual user, sometimes shares screen with roommate during Facebook time, spends half an hour in the morning, another three to four hours at night (it's always on, playing Itunes and alerting her to IM messages or Facebook updates)
Accessibility: No issues

Goals: Finding out what's going on in town, socially and for news affecting the homeless, since she volunteers in a homeless shelter. International news, since she's planning to study abroad soon and has many international students as friends. Staying in touch with her parents and faraway friends. Class work, through email and Moodle. Scholarship and grant availability research.

Jessica got on Facebook in high school, and loved the social networking. She also loved shopping on the Internet, not always buying but enjoying the beautiful websites of large chains and boutique shops. She also found that shopping online could sometimes save her time, since her schedule was so jam-packed, and still is.
An ex-boyfriend grabbed a provocative photo from her Facebook site once, did some Photoshopping, and then posted it for all their friends to see. Since then, she's been extremely guarded about her images and her identity online. There are just too many stalkers out there, and too much unwanted attention.
She occasionally posts to a blog at Macalester's website, part of a work-study commitment. The idea is to give potential students a real person to connect to, so she just talks about the routine parts of going to class and hanging out on campus. But Jessica, who is gorgeous, refused to let the school post her picture at the blog; she uses an icon that she uses for online postings instead. She doesn't want to emphasize her mixed ethnicity over her actions and accomplishments, and she doesn't want stalkers.
At the same time, Facebook's the best way for her to stay connected, but she yearns for something like it that is quick and easy to use and puts her in touch with local events, people and news. Her interests lie beyond Macalester, and its liberal arts focus is helping her think more broadly about the world and community. She started school focusing on the sciences, but is considering other avenues that will help her change the world.
Her ethnic background has given her some insights into society, as she tried to navigate the boundaries in Charlotte, where she grew up. She was in an urban school where the African American kids frequently hung out together, as did the Asian kids and the white kids. She dated across ethnicities, and many of her closest friends were white girls. Some of the African Americans said she was acting white, but her parents had taught her to think beyond race, and she usually had the self-confidence to define herself beyond specific groups.
She belongs to the Pluralism & Unity group at school, and the organization has opened her eyes to concerns and perceptions of race in other countries. She longs to travel overseas, but is on partial scholarship to the school and will need the Internet for much research into how to fund her dreams.
Why she's important to Jessica has many years left of using media. Some people like her will set down roots in the city where they went to school, and she's part of a generation that uses word of mouth frequently in determining what media to consume. Many high-end advertisers love her; while her student income might not be much right now, she's entering a very acquisitive time of her life. Her interest in international affairs will be a challenge for the news side of Twincities, at a time when newsroom budgets are moving away from that area. Smart linking and partnering with outside international sources would be a wise move for Twincities for customers like her. And usable, readable, interactive listings of nightlife and other things to do will be essential for capturing readers like Jessica.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Worst examples of interactivity

For a class assignment, I've posted earlier about the CATS site in Charlotte demonstrating poor interactivity, because of an intimidating, not-useful form. Here's one more nomination, My AJC, the user-defined "home page" for people through The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. When I first discovered this interactivity through a work research proje ct, I loved the concept and hated its glitches. I assumed it was just in the building stage and would get better over time. Why give me a widget to point to YouTube, and then have it either not work or not give me enough information to tell me how it works? Where's my emotional reward for spending lots of time personalizing this site? Why is there so much wasted space? Why are you subjecting me to a bright purple Haverty's ad after I've spent time picking colors for my customization?

Since I've personalized Google as a home page, I see how inadequate and poorly designed AJC is by comparison, and I'm highly questioning the value of news sites trying to offer such personalization to users when it's obvious they can't do as good of a job as the experts. Leave search to Google; enable good search on Google, McClatchy seems to be working on that with Yahoo; let's hope we're not betting on the wrong horse.

Google love

I've finally tried personalizing my Google search. I've even picked a theme, and I love how colors change depending on the time of day it is. I get local news feeds from The News and Observer and ... The Charlotte part seems broken right now, with old headlines displayed. I'm trying to figure out whether that's an error on Google's part or Charlotte's, and get it fixed. My only complaint, Google: Please give me an email address or form to talk to a real person about issues like that, instead of just referring me to the web expert site. But thanks so much for recognizing where I was logging in from and essentially setting up an RSS feed for me from Raleigh. Beautiful interactivity. Others pale in comparison. Why should newssites even try to compete? Maybe USAToday can, but I'd rather see partnerships than direct competition. Media should focus on what they do best.

Holocaust Museum, best interactivity site Part II

A specific, hopefully focused posting for the class assignment:
You, your mother (75 years old; with bad knees; sweet old lady, with a great sense of humor and interest in anything that he grandson is interested in) and your 15 year old (energetic and mercurial) son, Josh, are planning to visit XXXX city and go to XXXX museum for a 4 hour visit. You need to make sure that the trip to the museum will go well, so try to plan for any and all disasters before hand.

1. Mom stresses about traffic and parking. She will nag you increasingly every minute that you circle a block looking for a space. What is the parking situation?

This is downtown D.C. Fuhgget about parking. Less stressful is planning the trip through the Metro system, where I can plug in times and even walking distances to a form and get results. Aging mom can walk a block, and it's probably good for her. By the time we get to the museum, she'll be glad to have a wheelchair. There's an easy, quickly findable map and link to the metro system from the "Planning a trip" part of the website.
2. Mom's knees tend to ache after standing for awhile. She will want a wheelchair or to go back to the hotel. Can you get her a wheelchair?
In a repeat visit to the site, and with clues from classmates, I find a small link that is less obvious than the large Museum Accessibility Guide that tells me wheelchairs are free in the Check Room. It even tells me that audio-only presentations have text accompaniments, something that will be useful for other relatives later who don't hear well.
3. Josh is bored by 'old-fogey stuff'. Is there a contemporary or bleeding edge exhibit that will win cool points in Josh' eyes - and how would you know if it is cool enough?
Under Frequently Asked Questions, one question asks "What should my children see?" Young Josh is going to feel grown up that some exhibitions are not recommended for those under 11; the appeal of "Daniel's Story," mentioned in the FAQ answer as well, will give him a specific person that he can identify with. I'm so grateful for sites that deal directly with parents' concerns. And in my particular pretend case, I'm more concerned about the emotional reaction of Mom; her dad was career Army, and at one point was near Hitler's headquarters. She doesn't like to think about unpleasant times; luckily, there's lots at the museum besides the stories of human loss, so she can continue to keep her emotions turned off if she wishes.
4. Josh always loves to eat and mom is happy to pay. Is there a restaurant/food option that might be attractive to both of them? Is it a cafeteria or a restaurant? Price?
Oh how I love this FAQ sheet. It answers all my questions, including the food question, with clear words in bold and links in the answers. Not all answers have links; some have email addresses or phone numbers if I need to go more in depth. So the answer is yes, there's food, and even a menu, though I have to click away from the FAQ to get the menu. A menu link from the FAQ question would be an enhancement. Horrors, I had to do one click to find it. I love this site. I can even order online for the day I'm visiting.
5. Tour guides / audio tours... maybe you should get one of these and just not worry about keeping everyone happy. What's available? How much? Do you need to reserve in advance?
Plenty of options for the visually impaired exist. I have to make reservations two weeks in advance. That's not a problem for my group, and I don't find information quickly about whether I can check out a personal audio tour (like I used for the "Dead Sea Scrolls" when they came to Charlotte), but I'm reassured that my needs, even unforeseen ones, will be met by the many references to the information desk at the museum. Besides, the site has some podcats; downloading one or two of these might be easier and more fulfilling than trying to use some proprietary and foreign audio tool like the "Dead See Scrolls" clicker thingie. I can put the museum's media on Josh's Ipod, and he can plug in any time he wants. I wish Elie Wiesel would do a podcast; his focus on Darfur is hot right now, and that would really appeal to Josh since Wiesel is reaching out to young folks so much with his Darfur focus.
6. Is there really enough to see here for a 4 hour visit? Or should you plan for other events in the area - what else is close by?
Because of the richness of the site, I'm reassured there's more than enough to see in four hours. I appreciate the question in the FAQ; can we do the museum in an hour and have time to go to other places on the mall? I have numerous options, including "Daniel's Story," which can be done in half an hour. So I can even recommend a quick visit to the museum to friends with smaller children.
7. Are there special events or performances that you should plan your visit around?
Plenty of special events are listed. Because of the short attention spans of my group, and the emotional touchiness of some of this for Mom, I can plan around the special events to avoid lines and too much emotional grief for Mom.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Lest ye forget

I railed against the phrase "Lest Ye Forget" when it was used by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Athens when I was an undergrad.
Yesterday, I spent Holocaust Memorial Day by chance at Kings Mountain National Park, where hundreds of people died in a turning-point battle of the Revolutionary War. I returned home to hear about 33 dead people on a college campus.
So I don't fume about "Lest Ye Forget" any more.
We should remember the dead as people, not victims. The Holocaust Museum does that. Kings Mountain Park does that. Facebook groups using the overused ribbon symbol with VT do that.
We should also remember the world is a dangerous place. I'm angry I have to warn my kid about copycat school violence, since this week is the anniversary of Columbine.
It's also my daughter's birthday week. And many people every day are working to make this world a better place.
Lest I forget.

Friday, April 13, 2007

A good place: light, darkness and passageways

More later I hope on my favorite museum site, the U.S. Holocaust Museum. Just feast your eyes for now.
This image is from the "Plan a visit" page, and the main photo takes you there, to the gathering spot before you start your tours. It's a beginning, a planning place, before an experience. Designers rightly chose an image that doesn't plop you right into the middle of the experience, but rather gets you started. All of the information for a visit is presented quickly and well -- there's so much, though, that it can be overwhelming. I've posted in class discussions about the large accessibility guide in a pdf format, more information than I needed. Sometimes less is more.
One other small point: I tend to look at things on the web very horizontally, and I'm guessing that tendency is part of a larger trend. Designers are moving to pages optimized for about 1000-something pixels. These pages appear to be designed to be viewed about 810 to 850 pixels wide, and the design is somewhat "stretchy." So at larger widths, odd trapped "white space" appears. Perhaps a design touch-up of the site to make it as beautiful at a wider width as it is in the narrow width would be in order.
Navigation is so seemless that it took me awhile to figure out why: the navigation bar at the top, on almost all pages, built in as part of the branding page title, gets me wherever I go quickly. There's always a link to return to the home page. Drop-down menus have different colors behind them, all in a pleasing color palette. The colors sometimes match the background colors of the pages they lead to, a navigation device so visceral and intuitive that one doesn't even know it's happening as one clicks around. Not all pages match, though. It's worth further study to figure out why, or perhaps it's unintended. The palette holds everything together. Black is used on photo-intensive pages, such as the page that focuses on the art and architecture of the museum.
A beautiful, horrible place, accessible and with appeal to all kinds of people. It takes full advantage of the contrasts of lightness and darkness, transparent glass and solid brick, and passageways from one place to another.

Images that stick with me from a real-world visit:
The shoes. I couldn't find a photo of them on a quick search. Perhaps that's intentional: no photo on a website could convey the emotional effect of that exhibit.
The faces. People like me, or like people I know. I saw faces that could've been the cousins of my friends.
The passage: Our visit was late in the day, and at closing time we were ushered out slightly before we'd seen the full museum. A long, clean, uncluttered stair passage led out to the main hall. It was a place with a lack of visual input, a place for thinking and reflection on what we'd seen. It was the equivalent of "white space" on a newsprint page or website.

Subtle Flash

The Holocaust Museum site is a wonder of sophistication, with many elements cited on David Armano's blog.
It's uncluttered, understated, subdued, intuitive. It also conveys emotion, using the "people like me" principle so important in storytelling. "Daniel's Story," just a two-word title on one part of the site, reminds me that I know a young Daniel, and makes me want to click further to be told a story.
The site also uses subtle Flash. We have a visceral response to motion, no matter how small, and the moving Flash element for feedback, visible in a Firefox browser at the bottom right, catches my eye. Brackets move back and forth, and a plus sign changes to a minus sign, back and forth. It's a small movement in my web peripheral vision, and while there's other motion on the page, it's enough to grab me and send me to that part of the site even though it's in the "ghetto" part of the page according to Eyetrack research.
A fine use of Flash. Not flashy at all.
It's not visible in my ancient Explorer 5.2 for Mac, but the site then detects my use of outdated software and provides a link on "How to use this site" with more details underneath. Smart.

A bad place

My trip is invalid.
What a nasty word.
I wanted to find out whether and how I could take a bus to the airport to begin my trip to the Holocaust Museum with my aged mother and teenage son, as part of a class assignment. I know I'm a mile away from the nearest bus stop, and I'd save on parking fees at the airport. A neighbor would likely be able to give us a ride with our luggage to the nearest stop.
I have no idea what the address of the airport is. Who does?
I have no time to click on extra links. Who does?
So I try a quick Internet search, but I'm told I'm invalid.
People designing interactive forms long for the ability to force Internet users to input all the correct information. I recently sat in on a meeting where we envisioned collecting news data from the public. One person suggested that it would be very cool and efficient to use the required fields function to force users to give us all the information we need. Media folks spend hours tracking down a missing fact or two (or three), and the forms would help us force others to gather all necessary information.
Cool idea. Just don't call me invalid.
Site Lacks Heroin Content, Vince Flanders would say. While I care about cutting down on carbon emissions and the money I spend on gas and parking, I don't care enough to get through being called invalid. Call me names, and I won't trust your site.
In our meeting, one smart person said folks go to the Internet to be validated. That's why they seek out opinions and thoughts similar to their own. They don't want to be invalidated.
And I don't need all the clutter of a big giant help file, as my next click.
So instead, I'm giving up on a bus. We'll just pay the parking fees for our trip.