go ahead, mac my day

a Macintosh girl in a Microsoft world

June, 2006

  • go ahead, mac my day

    of bugs and bug fixing

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    While I'm linking to other MacBU folks (read: not finishing my review -- sorry, boss!), here's Nathan Herring talking about the economics of bug fixes in user discontentment and how it translates into profit motive. He includes a great list of things that will help your bug report along, as well as some things that won't help your bug report along.

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    Microsoft Mac-only desktop review

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    Fellow MacBU employee Brian Johnson just posted a review of the new Mac-only desktop based on his two weeks of usage so far. He's promised me one of these soon, so I'll post my thoughts when I get one and have had some time to play with it.

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    discoverability

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    Any user experience researcher who has been on the job for more than five nanoseconds is an expert in discoverability. You have to be. One of the problems that any large application (and most small ones, for that matter) have is that they've built in some really cool and useful functions, but they're buried somewhere. All of the work that we've put into a cool new feature doesn't do anything for our users if most of them can't find it. In a Windows environment, it's all too common to find functions that are only accessible by the contextual menu (the menu that pops up when you right-click). Thankfully, Mac developers are generally (although not always!) in the habit of assuming that a user only has a one-button mouse and doesn't know how to control-click, so they tend to stay away from contextual-only features.

    When I'm in a usability lab with a user, it's easy to figure out discoverability issues. If I can't determine what the problem is just by watching them, I can ask them questions. They might not be able to put their finger on the problem, but it's my job to be able to identify it anyway.

    My usability lab isn't the only way that we get feedback about our products, of course. There's the newsgroups and the product feedback page, there's meeting someone on a plane, there's informal conversations at the upcoming WWDC. Sometimes, when I see this feedback, it's hard for me to discover the issue. You see, discoverability is a two-way street: if I can't discover what the problem is, I can't do anything to fix it. Anyone on our test team can tell you how frustrating it is to get a bug report that doesn't include all of the relevant details and reproduction steps. This is true for what I do as well. It's frustrating to know that you have a problem, but that I don't have sufficient information about it to figure out what to do about it.

    Oftentimes, we can figure it out anyway. One recurring piece of feedback that I have noticed from our product feedback website is about Remote Desktop Connection. In fact, here's the complete text of one user's feedback:

    resizing the window is pretty much a necessary feature to be able to use this app.
    The user is entirely right. If my memory serves, the default screen size for RDC is 800x600. The default behaviour for RDC is that the screen is not resizeable. But we knew that users often have larger screens than 800x600, so we did provide an option for changing it. Sadly, there's a discoverability issue in our original implementation: finding the option to change your screen size is difficult. (If you don't know how to do it, open RDC but don't click on the Connect button. Then click on the disclosure arrow next to Options. Then click on the Display tab. Finally, select your preferences on that panel: the size of your remote desktop, whether you want the window to be resizeable, etc.)

    Not all of our one-line feedback is this easy to figure out. I know exactly what you mean when you say 'add webcams' or even 'why can't I wink?'. But sometimes it is. Here's some more RDC feedback:

    Make an option to change the password
    There's two possibilities here. When the user first set up RDC, they could have entered a username and password for the remote system. Sometime after that, their password on the remote system changed or expired, but they can't figure out how to change the setting in RDC so it's now sending the new password. Alternately, they want to use RDC to change their password on the remote system, and don't want to do it (or don't know how to do it) on the remote system. If it's the former issue, it's the discoverability issue that we already know about. If it's the latter, it's a feature request for RDC.

    So I'm asking you to make my job of discovering what you want a little easier. If you submit feedback to us, please make sure that someone on the other end can figure out what you mean. I'm not sitting next to you (unless you happen to sit next to me on the plane or buy me a drink at WWDC), so I might not know what you're talking about. If you want a feature that's just like your favourite part of another application, make sure you tell me what that other application is. If you think you've found a bug, include everything that you can possibly think of: OS version (don't say Tiger, let us know if you're using 10.4.7 or 10.4.2), application version, other important details (such as connecting to an Exchange server from Entourage), and what you did when you got the problem. If you want to say Nadyne rocks, you can give lots of details, but really, 'Nadyne rocks' is sufficient.

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    Q&A – What professional memberships do you have, and why?

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    I’m a member of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), several of its special interest groups (SIGs), and BayCHI (the local chapter of SIGCHI).

    I started this blog entry while I was in Portland, Oregon, at the organizing committee meeting for OOPSLA 2006. OOPSLA is one of the ACM’s top conferences, focusing on object-oriented programming. OOPSLA is one of the reasons that I keep my membership to the ACM current. I’ve been involved with OOPSLA since I was an undergrad in 1997. At the beginning of the fall semester, my undergrad advisor tracked me down and told me that if I didn’t sign up to be a student volunteer at OOPSLA, he wouldn’t sign my graduation petition. (My undergrad advisor never went for subtlety.)

    So I did, and it counts as one of the best decisions I ever made. The networking that I got to do there was fantastic. At my first OOPSLA, I met Martin Fowler, Dick Gabriel, Dave Ungar, and John Vlissides. I attended tutorials. I met other students from around the world (including a particular PhD student from Australia, who’s currently taking care of our cat while I’m travelling again). I got to dance with Linda Northrup and Mamdouh Ibrahim. After the conference was over, I marched into my undergrad advisor’s office and let him know that yes, I would be headed to grad school the following year. He just smirked, and signed my graduation petition.

    My involvement with OOPSLA has grown over the years, and this year I’m again taking part in the organising committee as Student Volunteer Chair [1]. My intent is to use the volunteer programme to show students what’s available in the field and to organise events for them that will help them figure out what to do next. The experience was so good for me that I want others to have that kind of opportunity, too.

    Aside from OOPSLA, I continue my professional memberships to keep current in my field. Communications of the ACM helps me keep up with current trends in fields outside the ones that I closely track. interactions, the journal of SIGCHI, gives me a broad overview of what’s coming next in human-computer interaction. Mobile Computing and Communications Review, the SIGMOBILE journal, is an in-depth look at the state-of-the-art in ubiquitous computing. Online, the ACM Portal has all of the ACM’s publications from its journals and conferences, which is immensely useful when I’m doing research. Through the ACM’s Committee on Women in Computing, I get to network with other women in the field and try to do my part to encourage more women to get involved with computer science, as well as gain an understanding of the obstacles that women face in this field. (Interestingly, only 15% of the ACM’s membership is female.) Attending the monthly BayCHI meetings, I get to see work being done at other companies, universities, and research institutions around the world.

    I suppose that the executive summary of why I continue my professional memberships is twofold: networking and keeping up-to-date. Both of these are essential to my career, and yours too. Staying in your shell means that you’re out-of-touch, and you’ll never get anywhere that way.


    [1] If you’re going to be a full-time university student in October 2006, you can apply to be one of my minionsvolunteers. Applications close on 01 August; accepted volunteers will be notified by 08 August, and those who didn’t make it will be placed on a waitlist in case a spot opens up in the future.

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    small MacBook review

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    As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I bought myself a new black MacBook and named him Bernard. (Why? It's in the comments thread for that post.) I bought the black MacBook off-the-shelf, walking into my local Apple Store to do so. Separately, I ordered 2 GB of RAM and a 120-GB hard drive. Installation of both was a snap. I also got a purple foofbag, which I really like. It's just a little sleeve, but that's what I want to keep it from getting damaged while it's sitting in my messenger bag.

    Bernard is now my primary personal machine, and I couldn't be happier. I suddenly have wi-fi range that I didn't before. In my apartment (on the fifth floor of an eleven-story building), my old personal laptop (the last of the TiBooks) shows three or four different wi-fi networks, depending on its mood, the phase of the moon, etc. Bernard, on the other hand, has a list of 15-20, including my apartment complex's free wi-fi that's available by the pool (four stories below my flat).

    I wasn't sure about the glossy screen, but it hasn't been a concern so far. I've used it in several environments: at home, on a dark plane, outside on my balcony, in various cafés. I haven't had an issue with being able to see anything on the screen. I vastly prefer this screen to the one on my TiBook. It's certainly a lot brighter.

    The apps that I use the most are Entourage, Word, Safari, Quicken, Remote Desktop Connection, Xcode (just the interface builder, I'm not compiling code), and (oh yes) The Sims 2 with the University and Nightlife expansion packs. I'm not sure if launch times are longer or not, since I use these apps (aside from the game) on all of my Macs, all of which have different specs, so I'm not really used to a single launch time for any of them. I did try those apps before my extra RAM arrived, and they felt sluggish. I wouldn't dream of trying to use any laptop without at least a gig of RAM. I have run Photoshop a few times, but I cannot consider myself an expert Photoshop user. It's observably slower, but not so much that it actually impacts me. I'm not a Photoshop wiz, and I'm not doing anything very advanced.

    The Sims 2 runs quite well. It's a universal binary now. It runs significantly faster on Bernard than it does on my personal Mac Mini (which is the last of the PPC minis). I do have a MacTel Mini sitting on my desk in my office, so maybe I should install the game on there. ('Honest, Roz, I've just got this game on here to compare performance ... ') Scrolling on the edges of the screen can be a bit slow if you've got a lot of objects or people, but it's never horrible. I have to admit that I've always found the ports of The Sims to run slower than the Windows versions, but I don't envy the Aspyr guys their job of getting the graphics engine to port at all, not to mention compile under Xcode.

    Others have complained about heat issues or the sound of the fans. I haven't noticed anything at all. Bernard gets warm if I use him for several hours at a stretch, but not so warm that I'm uncomfortable with the computer in my lap. The fan noise has never disturbed me or anyone else.

    I adore the keyboard. I'm picky about my keyboards. I touch-type 120 wpm. I'm really hard on keyboards. I type with so much force that I usually rub the highly-used letters off of my keyboards within a few months. (I've got one of the Microsoft ergonomic keyboards sitting on my desk at the office. The N and M are gone, the E and L and T are mostly gone.) There are few laptop keyboards that meet my requirements. Thankfully, Apple laptops have always met my standards. (For Windows-based laptops, Thinkpads have always had my favourite keyboards.) I haven't made a final decision yet, but the MacBook keyboard might just be my favourite laptop keyboard of all time.

    I'd been a bit concerned about going from a fifteen-inch laptop to a thirteen-inch one, but that hasn't bothered me at all. The screen resolution is great, so I haven't felt like I'm missing out on anything.

    In all, I give the new MacBooks a hearty thumbs-up. For the price, they're really nice little laptops. I had been hoping for a backlit keyboard like the MacBook Pros, but that's mostly because it seems nifty. I wouldn't mind a beefier graphics card, but that's only on the assumption that The Sims would be a little bit better with a better graphics card.

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    another MacBU blogger

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    The MacBU blogger clique has increased by one: Nathan Herring, who reports to Schwieb.

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    a change is gonna come

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    Life in a technology company is never quiet. There's always a change on the horizon. This is especially true of my particular corner of this particular technology company: news from several companies impacts me. I pay pretty close attention to news from both Microsoft and Apple. I also pay attention to news from around the industry.

    Yesterday's big news came from my own company. Bill Gates, co-founder and current Chief Software Architect and Chairman of Microsoft, is going to reduce his role at Microsoft. He's handing off his title of Chief Software Architect to Ray Ozzie, will keep his role as Chairman (as long as he's re-elected to hold that position by the rest of the board, of course), and will work part-time for Microsoft beginning in July 2008. (Why July 2008? I assume it's because July is the beginning of our fiscal year.)

    He's leaving to work more closely with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I really admire him for that. He's leaving behind a solid company that's making a billion dollars in profit every month, and is going to focus his time on making this world a better place. So far, the Gates Foundation has given away more than $10 billion, with more than half of that going to organisations dealing in global health.

    As with any change of this magnitude, it'll be interesting to see what happens next. My Magic 8 Ball doesn't have any information for me, so I'll be watching with the rest of you.

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    how to build your audience

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    Being a good daughter, I called my mother yesterday. She's having some health issues, so is at home re-discovering the horror that is daytime television. One of the programs that she has taken to watching is Trading Spaces. Yesterday, she complained about one of the decorators on the show: the decorator is rude and obnoxious, doesn’t listen to the homeowners, and creates conflict wherever she goes. ‘But Mom,’ I said hesitantly, ‘if you don’t like it, why are you watching it?’ ‘It’s interesting to see how mean she can be.’

    There are many methods of building an audience. One method that has grown more popular recently is the method of creating conflict: be detestable, and they will come. Some come to tell you how wrong you are, some come to rally around you, and others simply watch the train wreck. But come they do, and if sheer size of your audience is all you’re interested in, you get exactly what you want.

    Some people who do this are unabashed about it. John Dvorak has recently joined their ranks. I think I’m not alone in saying that I assumed that many of his articles have fallen into the category of trolling, but his strong (and rather amusing confirmation of it was a surprise. I prefer substance to style. Creating conflict isn’t about substance. It generates traffic, but it doesn’t generate anything useful. It’s just style, and it’s tacky style at that. All attention is not good attention.

    Another method of building your audience is to have something to say, and to say it well. If you have something interesting to say, you will build up your audience. Conflict will occur naturally, but in the context of a natural debate instead of yet another boring and meaningless ad hominem attack.

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    book review - 'High-Tech Heretic: Reflections of a Computer Contrarian'

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    Book title: High-Tech Heretic: Reflections of a Computer Contrarian
    Author: Clifford Stoll
    ISBN: 0385489765


    The title doesn't tell us this, but in this slim volume, Stoll gives us a skeptical look at computing in the classroom. He unflinchingly questions the assumptions thrown around by the proponents of the technology. This isn't a scholarly work, and isn't trying to be such. If you have ever had doubts about the efficacy of computers in the classroom, this is an excellent starter book. Written in a light and breezy style, you can finish it in a few hours and have plenty of time to reflect on his opinions.

    Stoll asks important questions. Why are we worried about digital literacy when our kids are barely literate at all? Shouldn't we be more concerned with ensuring that they can construct an essay and do basic mathematics? Is it more important for kids to learn how to make an effective oral presentation, or be able to put together a snazzy PowerPoint presentation?

    A few things about the book bothered me. It occasionally was repetitive. The light and breezy style was too breezy in some places. I found it ironic that he complained about poor writing skills of schoolchildren, but consistently used incomplete sentences throughout the book. I understand that it was a stylistic choice, but it was a choice that annoyed me.

    In all, I would recommend it to anyone who has encountered computers in the classroom. Society needs to seriously consider why we have invested so much time, effort, and money to wire all of our classrooms. Could that money have been more effectively spent on more teachers, more varied educational programs, more musical instruments?


    Related links:
    Clifford Stoll's personal homepage
    Amazon's page about this book

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    why you should tell us what you think

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    In April, we opened up a brand-new product feedback website. A couple of weeks later, we found ourselves sitting on top of 1000 separate posts to that site. We're a couple of months into this, and we've received a lot of feedback from our customers.

    I’m one of the people who goes through that feedback. My goals are probably different than most of the others who go through it. Each of the individual apps (Word, PowerPoint, etc) has someone on the team who goes through the feedback for their app: looking at bug reports, noting feature requests, etc. I try to look at that feedback and see trends, identify opportunities, determine where we’re not meeting our customers’ needs.

    Last week, I analysed some of the product feedback and provided recommendations to the PM for an improvement that we could make to address a common discoverability issue. ‘Discoverability’ refers to how easy it is to find a particular function. If you can’t find a function in an app, it’s not discoverable. What good is it for us to spend the time to add a feature if no-one can use it because they can’t find it? The next version should address that concern, and some of our users will be able to find a function that they thought that we didn’t provide.

    Earlier today, I contacted one of our UA (user assistance) people to see if she thought that we could write up an article to discuss a common question that I noticed in the product feedback. We met this afternoon about it, and hopefully you’ll see something on Mactopia in the near future.

    The benefit of sending us feedback is that we’re listening, and we’re taking action on it. Some of those actions you’ll see sooner because we can implement them pretty quickly. Some of them, you’ll see in a future version of an app. If you include contact information in your feedback, we might contact you to ask for more information if we need it. But you’re not just shouting into the void: we’re listening, and (more importantly) we’re doing something about it.

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