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We changed our name! After 14 years of creating award-winning digital products & services, it’s time for a new identity that better reflects the human insights-driven, digital customer experiences we create.
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AIAIO: Our Blog

AIAIO: Our Blog

The pulse and reviews of Alexander Interactive

Archive for 2009

UX Critic: Time Warner Cable DVR

Earlier this fall, Time Warner Cable introduced a grand new interface for its digital cable offering. But in its efforts to add features and visual flair, Time Warner Cable managed to worsen many of the features that previously made its system so easy to use.

TWC began by breaking some of the functionality. Not all of it, but enough of the essentials to drive one crazy.

Like the screensaver, for example: on my unit, at least, the blackout that kicks in after pausing for 15 minutes doesn’t actually black out the sidebars beyond the 4:3 screen width. Oops. Good thing I don’t have a burn-in-susceptible plasma TV.

Or the rewind, which, on higher speeds, snaps forward when play is pressed. Forward! Why? I find my self re-rewinding over and over again.

Worst of all is the 10-second back button, which used to be my single favorite feature on the old TWC remote. Missed a sentence? Pop! Hear it again. Click twice to create an at-home instant replay during a sports broadcast; click three times to watch a commercial from the beginning.

For some reason, this button, while still jumping backward, no longer does smooth 10-second increments. Often, the first click only runs back two or three seconds, which is basically useless. Press twice and the system picks what feels like an arbitrary jump-back interval. It’s now almost impossible to pinpoint a moment during playback without rewinding past it and waiting–not horrible in and of itself, but the system used to be perfect.

The list goes on. There’s no more “view this channel now” button in the program guide. No option to view extended program descriptions while in the DVR. Even the movie listings were rejiggered, so that the star ratings systems and year of release were moved to the end of the one-line summary, and directors are no longer mentioned.

Of course, TWC didn’t set out to break things; the company was trying to add features. But here, too, unnecessary problems were created. Introducing features into the current structure means rethinking the user interfaces, and not always for the better.

I was a huge fan of Time Warner’s old font face, which was narrow but easy to read (unlike, say, Adelphia’s narrow, non-anti-aliased displays). On the new TWC system, the fonts have been replaced with a more contemporary, wide font. It’s harder to read at a distance, and the increased width means program names cut off much sooner in lists.

On-screen cues that used to be straightforward have gotten more confusing, not less. TWC’s progressive rewind and fast-forward used to show an increasing number of arrows: >> >>> >>>>. Now, they’ve decided a number count is more useful. Only the number doesn’t appear until two clicks in, when it says “2,” not “3.” So >>> now renders as “>>2” and >>>> now says “>>3.”
My TWC system uses a Scientific Atlanta remote that has three color- and shape-differentiated buttons: yellow triangle A, blue squre B, red circle C. And TWC’s old software made the most of them. Some examples:

  • In the program guide: A for show grid, B to sort by genre, C to search
  • In the DVR: A for saved shows, B for upcoming shows, C for series management

For this new release, TWC introduced features that pushed the number of options in the program guide and DVR past three. Rather than find ways to nest them, the entire functionality moved into a horizontal scrolling list, which is accessed with a series of arrow keys and a Select button. To find a show by title, I used to click Guide, then C; now I have to click Guide, then scroll right several times to Find Shows, click

Select, then scroll right to chose Search. The effort has been doubled, or worse, for many functions.

The new UI also has fade-in, fade-out transitions, which are a huge mistake. The system used to have zippy little central wipes that made screens feel like they were snapping to attention. In contrast, the fades make the system feel slow–the opposite of what I want when I’m channel-surfing.

I still like my Time Warner Cable digital television and DVR. But I enjoy it a whole lot less.

UX

Ai’s Awards Run

Ai has had, by its standards, a solid year. We’ve launched a number of websites that present industry-leading user experience and effective transactional intelligence.

We have been rather pleased, then, to have had our work widely recognized by the industry as best-in-breed this year.

Ai regularly submits its work to the Interactive Media Awards, an independent panel that rates websites on their design, execution and ease of use. This year, Ai sites received an unprecedented six Best in Class awards in a wide variety of industries, from ecommerce and B2B to politics and education. (It’s not easy, either: the site we considered our most cutting-edge fared the poorest with the judges.)

In 2009, Ai also submitted its work to the Davey Awards for the first time. Several of our sites were considered noteworthy, and two of them, Ivanka Trump Collection and Mayor Jack Reynolds’ website, received Gold Prizes from the Daveys. We’re pleased to have been cited and are shooting for even better marks next year.

Awards are not the goal of Ai’s output. Our work is not overly clever or cute. Ai’s sites are effective: they help people achieve their goals on a site, and present options in an intuitive, inviting manner. That the industry’s judges of quality rate our work so highly speaks to the changing nature of web design toward smart user experiences. We couldn’t be more pleased about it.

Most importantly, awards reflect a team effort. No Ai website would be successful without the coordinated effort of all our disciplines: strategy handing off to user experience; creative giving solutions their personalities; the development team coding, testing, and innovating; and the project and engagement management that makes it all go. We innovate and problem-solve as a group, and the end results speak for themselves.

Our congratulations go out to our friends and clients at Air America, Chelsea Clock, Continental Airlines (International Restaurant Week is a two-time winner), Handy Store Fixtures, Ivanka Trump Collection, Pex Supply. We look forward to an even more successful 2010.

Ai

Reclaiming Google search results

Give Me Back My Google (GMBMG) is a Google search gateway that strips out product comparison and affiliate sites from Google’s search results. (I think it’s old, but thanks to Daring Fireball it’s going to become a meme, so here we are.)

I’m wondering if this isn’t an easy way to clean up some of the content farm clutter in Google of late. The GMBMG site uses a pretty straightforward inurl Google parser that can be replicated for other searches.

For the record, these are the sites GMBMG filters out:

Kelkoo
Bizrate
Pixmania
Dealtime
Pricerunner
Dooyoo
Pricegrabber
Pricewatch
Resellerratings
Ebay
Shopbot
Comparestoreprices
Ciao
Unbeatable
Shopping
Epinions
Nextag
Buy
Bestwebbuys

UX

Sneak some advanced logic into a Django template

I was adding on an app to a Django project at work where I was overriding an existing template but did not have access to the view that called that template. I was left in a scenario where I had the variables that the view was originally set up with, but non of the new models that I had added.

In a filter you can do whatever logic you want, and then pass information back to the view. Please keep in mind, this is probably a horrible practice, but it does have its uses. In this specific scenario I needed to query the new models without modifying the existing view, solution: add a filter and do the querying there.

This is the filter that I used to do the querying:

from django import template
from stager.jira.models import JiraProject, ProjectLink
from stager.staging.models import *
register = template.Library()
def has_jira(value, arg):
client = Client.objects.get(path=value)
project = client.projects.get(path=arg)
try:
jiras = ProjectLink.objects.get(ClientProject=project).JiraProject.exclude(filter_id='')
return True
except:
return False
register.filter('has_jira', has_jira)

Then, in my template:

{% load has_jira %}
{% if client.path|has_jira:project.path %}

	
  • Jira
  • {% endif %}

    A more general example if this would be to work around the annoyance of not being able to have multiple tests in an if statement in a template: You can’t do {% if this and that %}
    A solution would be:

    def if_and(value, arg):
    if value and arg:
    return True
    else:
    return False
    def if_or(value, arg):
    if value or arg:
    return True
    else:
    return False
    
     {% if True|if_and:False %}
    show
    {% else %}
    don't show
    {% endif %}
    

    Let me know your thoughts, pros/cons of this method.

    Ai’s stager project is open source and can be found at github.

    Technology

    Managing expectations

    The big news in ecommerce this week is consumers’ growing expectation of free shipping from online retail sites. It’s no longer seen as a perk; people are instead planning their shopping around free-shipping promos.

    This, of course, is leading to a big game of cat and mouse. Ecommerce sites are setting hurdles for purchases to get free shipping, hoping to make up the $7 or so in costs with increased sales. This in turn frustrates consumers, who look for ways to stock up on items, leading to lower purchase frequency, or who become frustrated and abandon their carts. (I watched my wife fall $0.04 short on free shipping last week and yell at the retailer’s website.)

    I’m curious to see where this goes in 2010. Does free shipping become de rigueur among mainstream ecommerce sites instead of promotional? Will hurdle levels shift? Or will discount programs alter to accommodate shifting margins?

    Business

    How The Web Works

    Earlier this week I was invited to speak at my son’s 1st grade class. The topic was entirely open-ended: arrive, talk for an hour about something that I know about, and contribute to educating the future leaders of America.
    alex_how_web.jpg
    I opted to teach the cadre of six- and seven-year-old learners about “How the Web Works.” A few slides on the Internet, a few fun screenshots of websites, something called “HTML,” a brave dive into the world of desktops-routers-servers, and a lot of Q&A. I did not know what to expect in terms of the class’ understanding of websites, their purpose, or how they work.
    Was I ever pleasantly surprised.

    These kids knew everything. I showed BrainPopJr.com, FreshDirect.com, Amazon.com, SteinerSports.com, Disney.com, YouTube, Skype, Google Weather, Google Maps, and more. Every kid knew every site. “That’s where Mommy and Daddy buy our groceries.” “Yeah, we buy LEGOs, books, and Wii games there.” “Can we watch Kittens Inspired By Kittens?

    They knew what a web browser was. They could identify every modern browser. Unsurprisingly, they asked “What’s that N thing?”
    how_web_browsers.png
    Beyond the digital, I wanted to give the kids a sense of how everything on the web ties together. Stretching my own arts and crafts capabilities beyond their sensible limits, I prepared a number of wearable pictures of desktops, routers, and servers. We embarked on a game to route Internet traffic.

    The kids wearing computers looked down at the site on their chest, found an available router walking around, connected a cable to the router, the router found the appropriate server for the site, connected a cable, the server connected back to the router, router back to the computer. Rinse and repeat. Seventeen times, with 17 giggling kids and their patient teachers. The scene quickly devolved into the controlled chaos of blue and red yarn crisscrossing the room. I think the kids got it. They certainly had fun clipping yarn to each other.
    how_web_wires.jpg
    We returned to the digital Interwebs to enjoy the lighter side the Net. If nothing else I got to use all of the Keynote effects that Ai’s Design Director never lets me have fun with during our sales pitches, most notably when I got to “peel away” a web page revealing the HTML under the hood. That felt great (Sorry Nathan.)
    how_web_html.png
    Now it was YouTube time. I sheepishly glanced at the head teacher, asking with my eyes, “Is this ok? Trust me…” and got back a subtle “Yes, but you better know what you’re doing” nod.

    If you thought Internet celebrity videos were funny to watch crowded around Pete-from-accounting’s cube, I encourage you to try out a few with first graders.

    Numa Numa incited a spontaneous 34-arm-flailing hysterical dance you’d more likely expect to see at a Phish concert. Think your co-workers do a good British accent? You should have heard my son’s classmates lamenting Charlie’s teething woes. And forget about that Sweet, Confectionery Precipitation. That just wasn’t fair to the teachers that had to deal with these kids for the five hours following my presentation.

    I had an incredible time. Most important, I learned quickly that the future of the web is in very capable hands. And I got to use the Keynote Sparkle effect.
    how_web_sparkle.png

    Ai

    Newegg. Aftermath.

    Well, actually, there is no aftermath. I was just looking for a catchy title. Now that my frustration with their poor customer service response to recent events has started to subside, I’m pretty sure leaving Newegg is going to be a non-event.

    I’m fixing up an old Dell D600, and the hard drive was failing diagnostics. So I needed to find a new PATA drive for it. I spent $64.99 on a 160 gig PATA Scorpio at Best Buy. Newegg sells an OEM version of the same drive for $69.99. 2 days into my boycott, and I’ve actually saved 5 dollars.

    While some very loyal internet folks would like me to think otherwise, boycotting Newegg is going to have no negative affect on my IT or personal budget. In fact, since I am no longer loyal to a single vendor, I may actually end up saving money. Hey, I saved 5 dollars already.

    Technology