Secret Hashtags

By on September 7, 2014

Inside The Secret World Of Teen Suicide Hashtags: Hashtags are being use to mobilize communities around some very bad things. What’s interesting is that the posts are public, but the hashtag acts as a password to the aggregate – so you can’t get the entire picture unless you search for the hashtag, which you need to know.

In a world where these companies actively police hashtags like #cutting and #proana to crack down on inappropriate content, young people are trying — and mostly succeeding — to fly under the radar by creating codewords like #sue and #secretsociety123 to discreetly form communities organized around self-harm, and they’re showing up in strong numbers. An Instagram search for the #sue hashtag, a secret word for suicide, reveals nearly 800,000 tagged posts. The vast majority of these posts all contain evidence of cutting, quotes about depression, and messages related to self-harm.


Email Never Dies

By on September 2, 2014

Email Will Last Forever: Absolutely agree.

A wave of new companies have recently tried to replace the communication channel people love to hate: email. Slack pretends to be “an email killer”,Asana promises “teamwork without email” etc. But the promise of a world without email is a fantasy.

Email represents a solid pattern of user interaction: The Necessity of Asynchronous Communication


Desktop Linux in Munich: The Aftermath

By on August 19, 2014

Linux-on-the-desktop pioneer Munich now considering a switch back to Windows: I remember writing about this often a decade ago. Sad to see that it hasn’t worked out, but I’ve long-maintained that Microsoft isn’t nearly as bad as it’s made out to be.

The world is still waiting for the year of Linux on the desktop, but in 2003 it looked as if that goal was within reach. Back then, the city of Munich announced plans to switch from Microsoft technology to Linux on 14,000 PCs belonging to the city’s municipal government. While the scheme suffered delays, it was completed in December 2013. There’s only been one small problem: users aren’t happy with the software, and the government isn’t happy with the price.

Though, towards the end of the article, things take on a tone of conspiracy. Not sure what to make of that.


The Difference Between Reading on Paper or in Pixels

By on August 19, 2014

Reading Literature on Screen: A Price for Convenience?: I was waiting for someone to do a study like this. The results confirm what I suspected, as I personally tend to rush more when reading something electronically.

A team of researchers led by Anne Mangen at the University of Stavanger in Norway and Jean-Luc Velay at Aix-Marseille Université in France divided 50 graduate students — with equivalent reading habits and experience with tablets — into two groups and had them read the same short story by Elizabeth George (in French translation). One group read the story in paperback, the other on an Amazon Kindle DX. All the while, researchers measured the students’ reading time and their “emotional response” — using a standard psychology scale — to the text. Afterward, they were tested extensively on different aspects of the story.



By on July 8, 2014

Scoop: A Glimpse Into the NYTimes CMS: The NY Times lifts the lid on its own CMS – entitled “Scoop” – to explain how it works and what it does. The article is brilliant: it explains a lot of the features in clear terms. Some notes:

If you love CMS, this is a great article. I think few companies share at this level because they don’t think anyone would be interested, but there’s a subculture of card-carrying CMS nerds that love this stuff


Uber as an Example of the Perils of Technological Expansion

By on June 26, 2014

Uber isn’t the problem; taxi regulations are: This column for the Boston Globe (by John Sununu, of all people?) pulls no punches, and explains one of the problems faced by technological advancements in any field: they threaten the established status quo which someone is making money from.

Uber has plenty of enemies. The Web-based taxi service opened for business just five years ago, but recently its reputation has instilled enough fear in competitors to tie up traffic not just in Boston but in London, Paris, and a dozen other European cities. The protests staged were intended as a defiant stand by cabbies against the “unregulated” car service. Instead, they were an advertisement of a different sort: for outdated business models, archaic regulatory structures, and entrenched business interests that are desperately fighting to protect the status quo.

Indeed, what’s the argument against Uber?  That it’s somehow worse than a traditional taxi?  Or just that it’s unfair?  If it’s unfair, do we need more regulation or less?


Does Online Advertising Work?

By on June 23, 2014

Online advertising effectiveness: For large brands, online ads may be worthless: A lot of startlingly honest revelations in here. Turns out that we have no idea if online advertising works, and it probably doesn’t.

[…] if somebody searches for “Amazon, banana slicer,” and clicks on a search ad that pops up right next to his results, chances are he would have made it to Amazon’s site without the extra nudge. Even if he never typed the word Amazon, he still might have gotten to the site through the natural power of search.


Miller’s Magic Number and It’s (Non-) Relevance to Web Navigation

By on June 8, 2014

At some point, anyone working on the web has heard the exhortation that ideal web navigation should be “seven items, plus or minus two” with some vague reference to science which “proves” this is true.

Some years ago, I finally decided to look up the “science” and found that this is a reference to what’s been called “Miller’s Magic Number,” which come from an article by George Miller published in the Psychological Review in 1956. The article was entitled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” (link to original text).

This weekend, I finally took the time to read the article.  It’s dense, but in it, Miller summarizes dozens of studies that examine (1) the ability of humans to remember information, and (2) the ability of humans to distinguish between gradients of information (so, to evaluate something – an audio tone, in one example –  and correctly categorize it). He summarizes the research to mean that our ability to do these things across all these different studies fell to somewhere around seven items.

I was bothered by what I found. The more I read both the article and multiple summaries of it, the more I became convinced that this has nothing to do with web navigation. It just didn’t seem to follow – I don’t memorize web navigation, nor do I compare it to a gradient scale. All the studies Miller discussed seem to do with recall and categorization. I couldn’t figure out what this had to do with anything.

I was all set to write a passionate post to his effect…and then I found that someone had beat me to it:

UX Myth #23: Choices should always be limited to 7+/-2

Limiting the number of menu tabs or the number of items in a dropdown list to the George Miller’s magic number 7 is a false constraint. Miller’s original theory argues that people can keep no more than 7 (plus or minus 2) items in their short-term memory. On a webpage, however, the information is visually present, people don’t have to memorize anything and therefore can easily manage broader choices.

That’s a well-written post that summarizes about a dozen references which refute the link between anything Miller ever did and the design of web UI and navigation.

Bottom line: the “magic number 7” has nothing to do with web navigation, and only may have some application to larger concepts of IA.  If someone quotes it, they’re just likely just repeating something they’ve heard and have never actually read the primary research on it.

This is sadly common – things that make a good sound bite tend to take on a life of their own. We repeat these things because they sound smart and reinforce some narrative which makes sense in our heads. They provide form to an amorphous concept which we hope has discoverable boundaries, so when we find something that claims to define one such boundary, we pin our hopes on it and are loathe to let it go or even examine it too hard lest we threaten it. From there, these things propagate like a virus.

Larger lesson learned: make an effort to read and evaluate original sources, which I’ve argued in favor of before. If you hear something like this, trace it back to see whether the original research actually exists and whether or not it supports the conclusion.


You Want Collaboration, Not Workflow

By on June 1, 2014

Content management isn’t unique this in regard, but the CMS sales cycle is a process of people asking for things they’re never going to use. You smile and play along because they’ve put a lot of work into that RFP, but, honestly, at least 50% of the functionality they swear they need is nothing that’s ever going to get implemented. Call me a cynic.

This is never more true than with workflow.  I’ll say this: workflow is the most over-purchased feature of content management, hands-down (I’ve said this before, in fact).

Seemingly every project has grand plans around workflow. Editors are going to submit content to an approver, then it’s going to an editorial committee of which 60% need to sign off, then it’s going to a metadata specialist, then the legal department, and then it will be published when the temperature in Moscow hits 60 degrees and the Oakland Raiders win the Superbowl, etc.

None of this ever happens (especially the part about the Raiders and the Superbowl…)

In my experience, 95% of “workflows” are simple serial chain approvals, and 95% of those are one step.  Someone can edit and submit, then someone else comes to review then publish.  It’s barely even “workflow,” but that’s fine because it works and it’s what most clients really need.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Ektron as a CMS, but as noted in the link above, they did workflow well as what they simply called “Approval Chains.” They didn’t even try to pretend that workflow was anything more than a chain of approvers, stacked however many levels deep.

EPiServer has a slightly less powerful model in that you can give Editor A “Edit” rights but not “Publish” rights. This means that Editor A can simply designate content as “Ready to Publish,” and Editor B (who has “Publish” rights) has to come along and publish it. Same thing, really – a simple approval chain, but only one level deep.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand, that when a client says they need “workflow,” what they’re most likely talking about is “collaboration.” They don’t want approvals so much as they want to be able to communicate with other editors about content and make sure content looks good before it goes out the door.

So, the functionality people really want is:

  1. To collaboratively discuss content.
  2. To prevent bad content from being published.
I’ve always thought that a CMS would be well-served by letting you “turn the page over and write on the back.”  You know how Wikipedia has “talk” pages where people can have a meta-discussion about the actual content of the page (example)?  Same thing. The average content editor just wants a space where they can call a time-out and discuss the content that’s being produced.  Additionally, some of these discussions might need to be resolved before the content can be published.

Take a look at this wireframe.

We scoped this for a client on EPiServer, but sadly it never got approved.  However, I still think the idea has merit.  The major functional points are as follows:

  1. Any editor can open a discussion about any piece of content.  They can “turn over the page” and engage other editors and users in conversation about that content in the form of a simple discussion forum.
  2. The discussion can be “scoped” to a specific piece of content (e.g. — the privacy policy, for example), or to an entire section of content (e.g. — the About Us).
  3. Topics are tied to specific versions – so every thread is version-stamped, so you know what the current version of content was when the thread was opened.
  4. Topics can “block” publication.  When a thread is opened, an editor can check a box that says “this version of content cannot be published until I remove this block.” An administrator could override, but the idea is that a single editor can block the content edit until it’s modified to their satisfaction or someone talks them off a ledge and they voluntarily unblock it.
(Note: there’s something else in the wireframe about requesting approvals, but it’s been 19 months and I can’t really remember what I was doing there.)

I maintain this is really what 95% of people want when they say “workflow.”  I have no doubt that “true” workflow scenarios still exist – there are legal, regulatory, and audit scenarios that require historical trails to be present.  But these situations are further apart then we care to admit because we’re too busy showing off our shiny workflow solutions in a demo. Many prospects ask for these just because they’ve seen them in examples.

Give editors a competent solution for collaboration, and I’m quite sure that many requirements for workflow will simply evaporate.


Never Fall for a Custom CMS. Ever.

By on May 20, 2014

Because I keep seeing the same problems happen over and over and over, I’m going to make this claim:

There is NO benefit to you in being talked into using a custom CMS which is hosted and controlled by a web development shop. DO NOT AGREE TO THIS. EVER.
We’re seeing this again and again: an earnest client is talked into letting a web development shop build their site on an in-house CMS, which the dev shop hosts.  It’s an “end-to-end” solution, they’re told.

It’s all a myth.

I’m going to go one step further:

Any web development shop that tries to talk you into this is being reckless or naive at best. At worst, they’re being unethical.
At some point in the maturation of that dev shop, they faced a choice: do we (1) build our own CMS, or (2) learn to competently use one of the hundreds of available open-source or commercial options available.  In this day and age, I’m completely mystified why people keep trying the first option.

Actually, I think this is dying out. I hope it is, anyway. I’m hoping that the organizations we see getting screwed over today are just unfortunate vestiges of some archaic past practices.  Back in the day, this might have been a viable option. Back before the open-source world matured enough to provide so many great options.

But, in the darkest corners of my mind, some dev shop somewhere is staring down this choice today and still making the wrong one.

Think about this: if their CMS was really any good, other people would want to use it.  If it was that good, they’d sell it, or productize it, or at least open-source it and make the code available for other people to see and use. If they don’t (and they probably don’t), ask yourself why. If they have managed to re-solve the problems of content management so damn well that you should sign onto their pipe dream, why aren’t other people using the software?

If you are a client facing someone trying to sell you this, here are your problems:

If a dev shop tries to talk you into this, do not walk away. Run.  As fast as you possibly can. They do not have your best interests at heart. They are trying to put you in their system not for your benefit, but for theirs. The upside belongs completely to them – they get to be lazy, live in their own little insular world, pretend that they’re state-of-the-art, and lock you in.

Do not fall for it.

Do I sound pissed?  I am.  Too many times – several recently – I’ve seen good organizations get hurt by this. They finally realize that this custom platform is not meeting their needs, they make the hard decision to move on, and they suddenly face tens of thousands of dollars in migration expenses at best, and a obstructionist dev shop at worst.

So, are all hosted CMS options bad?  Well, they’re not ideal, and I would never encourage one of my clients to use a SaaS CMS option (I’ve made this point before), but if you have to, look for two things:

Don’t do anything until you have good answers for the above two questions.

This business practice just has to stop. I’m waiting for the first client in this situation to just man up and sue their shop for professional negligence. When it finally happens, I’ll be standing by, cheering them on.