go ahead, mac my day

a Macintosh girl in a Microsoft world

July, 2006

  • go ahead, mac my day

    security versus usability


    This morning, I noticed that we got some feedback from an unhappy Entourage user that says:

    How DARE you prevent, by DEFAULT, the ability to see images in my email program!?!?!?! I just forked out good money for Office 2004 thinking that there would be improvements - and instead I find some LUDITE has made a decision that should be left up to the user - I do not NEED to have my email "secured" from images - I LIKE the images appearing automatically - LIKE THEY DID BEFORE in the previous version of Entourage - in fact I'm switching back.
    THANKS FOR NOTHING!! Use your brains to improve a product - not diminish it.
    It's feedback like this which makes me amused at the assertion that I got via email a couple of months ago that we only set up the anonymous product feedback so that we'd get fawning we <3 Microsoft feedback.

    Usability doesn't exist in a vacuum. My life would certainly be easier, but a lot less interesting, if it did. When I study usability and try to make improvements, I have to deal with the real world, which means that we don't get to provide you with the perfect user experience. We have to make trade-offs. We don't have unlimited resources. We don't have a perfect technological solution to everything. And we have to deal with security concerns.

    Entourage 2004 has a couple of security features that has a detrimental effect on the short-term user experience. By default, Entourage doesn't automatically download any image that is sent to you via email. You can change that through the Preferences menu (Entourage -> Preferences -> Security -> Automatically download ...), but that doesn't get you every image that is sent to you. That only gets you images that is sent to you by people who are listed in your Entourage address book. If you get email with pictures from someone who isn't in your Entourage address book, you have to manually click that 'Download images...' link in the email message.

    This feature makes some of our users quite upset, as you can see from the above feedback. And I've already admitted that it has a detrimental effect on the short-term user experience. So why haven't I shouted at anyone who will listen until we change it? This is one of the more difficult trade-offs that we have to make: security versus usability. For Entourage users, the most usable thing to do would be to automatically download every image, so that you see the email that you expect to see and don't have to notice that there are missing images and then move your hand to the mouse (if it's not already there) and click the link.

    The problem is one of security. Think about the spam that you get, or those spoofed messages from banks (real or not) that want you to enter lots of your personal details on some random faked website. If Entourage automatically downloaded images from those messages, their servers would get a lot of information about you. For example, their server will record your IP address, which gives them a fair amount of information about your physical location. There's a lot of other information that they'll get automatically, which gives them lots of information to use to spam or phish you in the future.

    We made the decision to relinquish some of our short-term usability to enhance security. We tried to mitigate the usability effects of this decision. You can set the pref to automatically download images from people in your address book. This isn't a perfect solution, either: my address book has entries for Alaska Airlines, Hyatt Hotels, and my father. (Dad doesn't need to be in my address book. His is one of the few telephone numbers that I can actually recite at will, unlike (for example) my own home number.) I don't like having extra entries in my address book, but it's the best solution that we have to the problem of spam, phishing, and maintaining security.

    Making software is a series of trade-offs. This is just one example of one type of trade-off. Creating solutions to these problems is what makes my job interesting.

  • go ahead, mac my day

    secrets and buzz


    The Wall Street Journal published an article last week titled At Apple, Secrecy Complicates Life but Maintains Buzz. Here's a quote from the article:

    While many tech companies assign internal code names to products, Apple goes a step further. It often gives different departments dissimilar code names for the same product, current and former employees say. If a code name leaks, Apple can more easily track down the department from which the leak originated.

    In the interests of being more transparent, I'm going to share a secret with you, my dear readers. Microsoft is one of those tech companies that assign internal code names to products [1]. The code name for our next version of Office:Mac is (drumroll) ... Office 12.

    I hope I didn't just kill any of our buzz by revealing that secret.

    [1] My favourite code name that was used by MacBU was Taco Cat. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out which product had that for a code name and why. (We don't make that many products, so guesses don't count.)

  • go ahead, mac my day

    the usability of rental cars


    I've been quite the road warrior for the past few months. The biggest question in my travels is my rental car. I never seem to get the same type of rental car twice in a row. I've run the gamut from a Ford Mustang convertible (and I hated every second of driving that car, which is unfortunate, since I drove it from Portland to Seattle) to a Chevy Trailblazer (which I also hated, because it felt like I was driving a schoolbus).

    Aside from complaints about specific vehicles, I've learned a bit about what I want out of my rental car:

    • Mirrors that are easy to adjust. You'd think that this would be a no-brainer, right? But I can't tell you how many times I've been entirely unable to figure out where the control for the side mirrors is, and then how to work it.
    • Headlights that come on or flash when I click the 'unlock door' button. If I'm driving a four-door beige sedan, I need some kind of indicator from the car so that I know which one is mine. (An alternative, which isn't great but I'll accept it, is that it has a quick horn-honk when I hit the 'lock door' button after the doors are already locked.)
    • A radio that has an easy-to-find 'seek' button. If I have a rental car, I don't know the local radio stations, so I have to dig around until I find the ones that I want. I'm going to do this while I'm driving, I'm not going to be doing this while I'm sitting in the garage. It should be on the left side of the radio, and it should be easy to find by touch after I know its general location.
    • A radio that lets me program its pre-set buttons easily. I always seem to get a rental car after someone with diametrically opposite tastes has had it, so I have to get rid of their bad country or right-wing talk radio stations as soon as humanly possible so that I don't accidentally damage my psyche.

    These have turned out to be the things that are really important to me when I drive a rental car, and I realised that they're all usability issues. It's just me and my luggage when I travel, so I don't care about making sure I get a big enough car. Assuming that the car has four wheels and air conditioning, I really don't care about the particular car. It's been kinda nifty to drive cars, it's kinda like an extended test drive for cars that I'd never consider buying.

  • go ahead, mac my day

    the usability of blogs


    Usability pundit Jakob Nielsen wrote a pretty good article about the usability of blogs: top ten design mistakes of weblogs. I've had a bookmark to that sitting around for awhile, and always meant to do something about it. Today, I had a bit of extra time between usability tests, so let's talk about it.

    Here are Nielsen's design mistakes, and some commentary from your favourite MacBU user experience blogger:

    1. No Author Biographies -- I don't think that this is absolutely essential. There are some anonymous blogs out there that are quite effective. That said, I think that they do have to work harder to establish their creditability and readership. This reminded me to finally get off my lazy duff and add some content to my own about this blog link.
    2. No Author Photo -- Another item that I don't think is absolutely essential, but does help. I haven't put one up yet, but perhaps I'll get around to it someday. Attendees of WWDC will probably still be able to pick me out of a crowd, since there aren't that many other women at most geek events like this.
    3. Nondescript Posting Titles -- I can't disagree with this. The title of a post tells me whether I want to read it.
    4. Links Don't Say Where They Go -- I agree with the point that he makes about this one, but the title of this mistake is actually quite misleading. In the body of this one, he complains about people who give ambiguous links (you know, 'click here').
    5. Classic Hits are Buried -- Blogs are set up to read the latest content, but that's not necessarily giving new readers a good overview of your best content. Link back to your old posts, too. As RSS readers become more popular, I think that linking back to your old posts is much more important than a best-of list on your blog.
    6. The Calendar is the Only Navigation -- Use categories, but don't abuse them. I added categories the minute they became available here.
    7. Irregular Publishing Frequency -- You don't have to post every day, but at least post regularly. You'll lose readers if you're too erratic.
    8. Mixing Topics -- The more topics that you post about, the less likely you are to have an audience that is interested in all of them.
    9. Forgetting That You Write for Your Future Boss -- Don't forget that your bits persist, even if you think you’ve deleted your blog. This strikes me as a no-brainer.
    10. Having a Domain Name Owned by a Weblog Service – This is another idea that I question him about. As a corporate blogger, I wonder whether some readers get some value out of being able to access a central list of Microsoft bloggers. I’m undecided on this one.

  • go ahead, mac my day

    information glut


    I'm in the middle of reading Technopoly by Neil Postman right now. So far (70 pages in), it's an interesting book about the rise of technology and the attendant spread of information, and the consequences of this. Here is a quote:

    We are a culture consuming itself with information, and many of us do not even wonder how to control the process.

    Postman published this in 1992. Think back to 1992. The Internet was still only for academics, researchers, college students, and some enthusaists who were coming over from the BBS world. Cable television hadn't exploded to 500+ channels. Satellite radio hadn't made its entrance with its 500+ stations. If he thought we had an information glut in 1992, I hesitate to consider what he would think of the information available in 2006. The human genome is being mapped, we're working on cloning, many newspapers have an online presence. I don't read a newspaper anymore, I read through several online news sources (the Beeb, CNN, the Sydney Morning-Herald) for my news.

    And here, right now, I am creating more information. And you're reading it. Blogging is all about creating and spreading information. This isn't a judgement, but merely an observation. I'll have to think more about information and my own place in its creation and consumption as I continue to read this book.

  • go ahead, mac my day

    last chance to be my minion


    Tomorrow is the last day that I'm accepting applications for student volunteers for OOPSLA 2006. To be a student volunteer, you must be a full-time student in an accredited university anywhere in the world in October 2006. To apply, fill out the application form. I will notify all applicants of their status by 08 August.

    Student volunteers are my minions. Together, we're responsible for keeping the conference running smoothly. Student volunteers work at registration, man the information booth to point conference attendees in the right direction, provide assistance at the tutorials, and do a bunch of other jobs. In return for their work, student volunteers receive a free full conference registration, free admission to tutorials (on a space-available basis), and whatever other goodies I can come up with between now and October. Some student volunteers will also be eligible for reimbursement for some of their travel expenses associated with attending the conference, to a maximum of US$500.

    If you're not a student (or you are, but you're afraid of working for me) and are interested in OOPSLA, registration is now open. The advance program shows you what we've got confirmed so far. Our confirmed invited speakers include Brenda Laurel, Guy Steele, Philip Wadler, and Joshua Bloch. The keynote for the educator's symposium is Willy Farrell of IBM. We have a grand total of 57 tutorials this year, covering topics in Java, C++, Python, Ruby on Rails, Eclipse, UML, agile design, design patterns, test-driven development, and more.

    If you have questions about OOPSLA, you can leave a comment here or email me via that 'contact' link over on the right side of the page.

  • go ahead, mac my day

    passionate users


    The manager of our user assistance team pulled together some statistics about the product feedback that we've gotten from you guys. It's all high-level, there's no count of how many 'Nadyne rawks' comments were in there. It's pretty nifty to look at.

    You guys are passionate. From its inception in April through the end of June, we received 9273 comments. Of those comments, 39% are about Office:Mac 2004, with the rest split amongst the rest of our apps. 13% of respondents didn't list a product -- some of these were comments about other applications (including a really well-thought-out comment about potential improvements to the gameplay of Solitaire in Windows), some are requests for Microsoft applications to be ported to the Mac, and much more.

    I've been so in-depth with the individual comments that I haven't stepped back and looked at the big picture like this. I didn't realise that we were pushing 10,000 comments. How cool is that?

  • go ahead, mac my day

    spare the air


    Today is a Spare the Air day in the Bay Area. Public transit on most (all?) of the local public transit providers is free. Even though we've got a bunch of solar panels providing some of our electricity, we've also turned off the lights in most common areas and turned up the temperature. (Don't worry, I'm not going to get hurt in the dark. We've got lots of windows, so it's not that dark.)

    I like that Microsoft seems to be doing a lot to be a more environmentally-friendly company. Aside from the solar panels here, we do a massive amount of recycling. Microsoft gives me commuter cheques to encourage me to take the bus. There's carpool incentives. Thanks, guys, for being a good corporate citizen.

  • go ahead, mac my day

    I'm, alas, a salami!


    In a previous post, I revealed that my favourite MacBU code name was Taco Cat. None of you guys rose to the bait to make any guesses about what it could be! Oh, readers, how disappointed I am in you! Le sigh. I've been let down by the nameless faceless Internet.

    Taco Cat was the code name for Virtual PC 7. Why? Astute readers might have noticed that this code name is a palindrome. The geek joke here is that VPC is itself a palindrome because it has to go between big endian and little endian.

    For an amusing couple of minutes, you can read this list of palindromes. Some of them aren't appropriate for code names, especially that one about Tulsa.

  • go ahead, mac my day

    more accessories for my blackbook


    I'm not one of those people who dresses up my cat. No, instead I pour my energy into dressing up my geek goodies.

    My old messenger bag (a Hello Kitty one) has finally given up the ghost. Last night, the evil temptress that is eBags convinced me to buy two replacements: one in turquoise silk brocade for everyday use, and a big purple messenger bag for my frequent travels. I couldn't put my ultra-cool BlackBook into just any old boring bag, could I?

    But a messenger bag really isn't all that interesting in the grand scheme of things, no matter how much they warm my little geek heart. It doesn't involve paint or a buzzsaw. Another BlackBook owner, armed with some paint, painted his power supply to match his new laptop. Another geek with an iPod has taken an old MacPlus and turned them into a do-it-yourself iPod HiFi. I have to admit that I'm quite tempted by both of these. I'm quite sure I could come up with a MacPlus somewhere ...

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