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My daughters are huge fans of two reality sing-offs shows, “Grease, you’re the one that I want” and “American Idol”. I’ve always thought that reality shows are interesting because the editors of the shows are, in essence, the stars. There’s a distinct contrast between these two particular shows. I guess you could say they both have great back stories, drama, competition and talent, but Grease’s editing is just sub-par to Idol’s. The picture editors for America Idol are extraordinary; I believe it is the primary reason it does so well.

I know what you’re asking:

“What the heck does that have anything with application development?”

Im getting there…

Nine years ago, I worked in feature post production at Warner Bros. Robb, my boss, walked me through the studio my first week on the job, mentoring me on how Hollywood worked. He taught me two important lessons about engaging the audience that I have carried with me ever since.

First, he spoke about his 10 years working with picture editors (both TV and feature film). Through that time, he had the opportunity to work with bad ones, good ones, and the occasional greats. He described how in just a few minutes, he could tell the difference between the good and great editors. The good editors had impressive “gut” instincts, their cuts felt right to them, and a majority of the time their instincts were dead on. The major difference between them and the truly great editors though was that the great ones could tell you why they made the cuts where they did. Not only did they have great instincts, they had an explanation for every single edit.

“I made this cut to him, here while she was talking, because I thought his expression was more engaging, I wanted the audience to identify with his emotion.”

When you talk to our Chief Interface Designer, Lance, you get exactly the same level of thoughtfulness. In fact, any designer from effectiveUI will tell you why they, for example, chose left-to-right navigation for an application, or why this button should go here rather than there. Lance has a reason for every pixel and color that is used. There are many good application designers out there, but look for those that can tell you the why behind the important items in their design. And if you are a designer, trust your gut, but also make sure you can back those decisions up with logic and purpose.

The second lesson Robb taught me was when he spoke about the responsibilities of the special effects departments:

“If you’re watching a movie, and you say to yourself, ‘WOW, that was an awesome special effect’; then we have not done our job. Our job is to never be noticed, to not take the audience out of the magic immersion of the film.”

Have you ever looked at an application and said, “WOW, that navigation is awesome!” I’ve caught myself doing that as well. Lance always talks about how the interface should get out of the way and let content be king. That is not to say that the interface is not important; on the contrary, it is CRITICAL. But subtlety, familiarity, and immersion are much more important than the sexiest of navigation schemes. When evaluating the design of an application, the first 5 minutes are the most important, after that you have been contaminated. If you find yourself magically understanding the interface almost immediately, then you are in front of something very special…

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FlexRIAwarning

It drives me crazy when I hear these so-called usability “experts” make blanket statements like “Flash is unusable”. Flash, Flex, and Apollo are just tools, and powerful ones at that. My company focuses on solving usability problems for companies like eBay, Boeing, GE, and NBC. We see Flex (and the Flash content it produces) and Apollo as tools of the trade that give us more options to help our clients solve usability issues. We think of Flex as broader palate of colors to paint with than HTML. How could limiting your options make any sense?

One of our clients, an international airline, was losing millions of dollars, frustrating customers and employees, and damaging their brand. Why? It was due to an unusable HTML based application that required excessive training expenses and inefficient data entry at their customer service counters. The challenge for effectiveUI was to create an application that would drastically reduce data entry errors and require minimal training. Using Flex, we were able to provide advanced client side validation, visual help, hot key overlays, auto-saving, and modality (users are able to move between different tasks without losing progress in any of them). The end result was a significant reduction in training costs and drastically improved data entry accuracy.

Another client, eBay, saw an opportunity to better serve their users through a more engaging shopping experience. Using Apollo’s desktop capabilities, file system access, system notifications, occasionally connected functionality, allowed us to think ‘out of the browser’. We developed a UI strategy to give eBay shoppers an enhanced user experience that could’t be accomplished through a browser or HTML. This new application allows individuals to drag images from their desktop right into the application, alert them with notifications even when the application itself is not running, capture and save imagery from the user’s webcam, and create listings offline that publish to the Web once they reconnect.

In order for this new ‘webtop’ application to make sense, it had to be available to all and it needed to work cross platform. When evaluating our options it became clear that to satisfy our requirements Flex, the Flash player, and Apollo were the best options to ensure that the eBay application would be accessible today and relevant tomorrow.

So why do those usability experts drive me so crazy? Because they point to poor usability examples and blame the platform. Its like an architect pointing at a poorly designed house and blaming the power tools.

Manufacturers feel a responsibility to put warning labels on their power tools. Adobe might consider a label for Flex that would read something like:

Warning: Handle with care, may cause severe end user frustration. Developers without common sense are strongly discouraged from designing user interfaces.

I think what the critics are trying to say is “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. Adobe has made a significant effort to “bake usability in” with great components, simple skinning, layout managers, states, and data binding. Flex is a powerful set of tools and components, and with great power comes great responsibility (sorry for the cheesy Spiderman reference).

Top Ten symptoms your RIA has gone bad, according to the team at effectiveUI

  • Skip intro is the most used feature
  • Your mouse pointer emits a trail of pixie dust
  • You need to navigate to get to the navigation
  • Intro music sounds like something from Boogie Nights
  • Looks cool, who cares if you can’t read it
  • Looks like HTML, feels like HTML, why is there a loading screen?
  • The preloader has a preloader
  • Do you really want to punch another monkey to win a prize?
  • 1992 called and wants their GUI back
  • The app looks and sounds like you’re flying a spaceship from Star Trek

  • Five more symptoms your RIA has gone wrong:

  • Was not built by effectiveui (okay, shameless self promotion)
  • Comes in three colors: light grey, medium grey and dark grey
  • Your cubicle is more interesting
  • Emulates an application from your Commodore 64
  • The error messages are in Klingon
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    In our internal marketing meeting last month, we made an attempt to better understand our customers . We took a look at the people we are currently working with and discovered that there were no commonalities in department, industry vertical, job title or pay grade. The big, “Ah-ha” moment for us was when we realized that these individuals all had a common persona: They are the champions of change within their organizations. If you look at the truly evolutionary applications on the web today, they are all championed by somebody that was willing to, in essence, stick their neck out for something they believed would make a difference. I thought it would be interesting to profile a couple of the people we are working with to understand how someone might identify that person of change within their own organization…

    Who ARE the people that champion change?

    Alan Lewis
    Technical Evangelist, eBay
    Alan, who has been working for eBay for 3 years as an evangelist on the eBay API infrastructure, had an “off the ranch” idea to build a desktop application on top of eBay”s robust SOA. He thought there was an opportunity to build a better buying experience for eBay shoppers; one that had a rich application feature-set and gave eBay a more prominent desktop presence.

    Alan came to effectiveUI with only an idea… no budget approval or no initial internal support. His idea was to revolutionize the eBay buying experience by creating an engaging desktop application that focused on eBay shoppers. He knew that if he could simply “show” his idea to the eBay executive team, they would jump all over it (he was right). Alan pulled a few strings for a small budget to build a prototype.

    That prototype was featured at the Max Conference last year and the DEMO conference this year, and is the flagship implementation for Adobe’s new Apollo platform. He understood the importance of quickly materializing an idea and how that visualization can have a catalytic effect on building internal momentum.

    Alan’s ability to innovate was not only a testament to how a small voice can be heard to make a large organization shift towards positive progress, but also to eBay. Most large corporate structures are too rigid to foster a culture of innovation.

    Allison Suhowatsky
    Internet Marketing Group Manager, Wilton Industries
    Wilton Industries is the leading supplier of cake decorating supplies and educational materials, and they occupy a substantial share of the crafting business in all verticals. The three main aspects of Wilton’s business are manufacturing of crafting products, publishing “how to” books, and education of crafters worldwide. Most of their business is entirely offline, with a strong presence in most well known craft supply stores.

    Allison is known as the internet guru in the company. She champions innovative, online changes that are showing a huge ROI. For example, Wilton created a new product line of T-Shirt Transfer paper. Instead of following the “traditional” product launch formula, Wilton decided to augment the product by building a means to allow the customers who bought the paper to be creative (think of a very simple online version of illustrator). Wilton Easy Image was conceived and developed in just a few short months and just in time for the product launch at Michael’s.

    Like Alan, Allison has an uncanny knowledge of her customers, her business, and the technology. She is able to visualize how to bring these aspects together to create new channels that engage existing customers and, most importantly, create new customers.

    … The same story is true for almost all other clients I have dealt with over the last 5 years, weather it’s a top level executive, or someone just starting out in their career. Creative thinkers and problem solvers see RIAs and instantly “get it”.

    Who struggles with innovation and change?

    Last year I went to the research labs of a major consulting firm to introduce rich Internet application technology. I found myself in a room filled with more than 25 Computer Science PhDs, and another 30 or so overseas on videoconference.

    I walked through my presentation, lots of nods and positive feedback assured me that all was well, that is until I came to a slide that discussed usability. One of our tenants of usability at effectiveUI is that an interface must emotionally connect with a user in a positive way. When I stated this I was challenged by one of the senior scientists:

    “I don”t understand, what do you mean by “emotionally connect” ? I”m looking at these examples and I don’t feel emotional. I don’t have a connection with them at all”

    I tried to explain:”
    “Well, I don’t expect you to look at these and sob with enthusiasm, but these examples have a visually emotive feel to them” (It dawned on me that most developers don’t connect with the applications they build, what I REALLY wanted to say was: “Of course you don’t you’re a developer buried in code everyday, writing software for people like you, not for the everyday users”)

    Then, someone else in the room said (I wish it had been me):
    “Have you ever used a piece of software that you absolutely hated?”

    — the response was a 30 second anti-application rant

    “Can you imagine the opposite feeling to a piece of software?”

    — “Yes”

    “Well, I think that is what Anthony is talking about”

    The point is that most people, even the super geniuses in your organization, may not understand how to conceptualize your customers, your business goals, and available technology and leverage this combined knowledge into a solution. If you ask Allison how she is able to effect change, she’ll tell you “its the right combination of prayer and badgering”…

    Look for the most vocal advocates of usability, make sure they know your customers and business, give them a little room for a small failure here and there. You will rarely be disappointed with the results.

    Great post from Ryan @ ZDNet, once again.

    How Adobe is making big moves while no one’s looking

    I would like to underscore Ryan’s point about Adobe showcasing their platform by
    building their own innovative products on top of it. The value of the development platforms for Flash, Flex, LiveCycle, and the Acobat Suite are bolstered exponentially when Adobe can prove they have created successful commercial products on top of them…

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