User experience follies from Google, a company who prides themselves on user experience

Apparently Google released a new version of Chrome within the last week. I just now picked it up, as I just restarted Chrome for the first time since like, ever. This version brought some changes to the interface, many of which have the loyal userbase of Chrome up in arms.

Google removed http:// from the query string

There are a few problems with this one.

The biggest issue: if I were to copy the above url from the address bar, what do you think it would copy? corywatilo.com? Nope. It would copy http://corywatilo.com/ - how does that make the copy/pasting experience consistent with what the user expects from what they see visually? It doesn't. I'll bet you the first time QA saw this change, they sent it back with a bug report attached.

Another issue: security. It is standard practice to SHOW "http" or "https" in the browser, and with good reason. Many large companies have launched campaigns recently, encouraging users to confirm they're on a secure website when making online purchases or dealing with finances by checking to make sure they're on a site with a prefix of https. Generally, a user confirms this by looking at the link in the address bar to see if they're on http or https. If the average person doesn't see http, they're probably going to tend to not notice that they're not on https.

And my last point is that it's just annoying, especially for developers. While this change doesn't break anything, it does make our job less easy by increasing the amount of uncertainty we have while developing, and more importantly, debugging problems. Without being able to explicitly see http, there's subconciously an increased risk that we're looking at the wrong url. At the very least, this should be a user configurable option. But it's not.

Google moved the Favorite icon

While this does make the favorite icon location consistent with Firefox's, it's a little interesting they'd move the icon this late in the game. It's not like Chrome was just released yesterday - the browser has been in development for four years.

Aside from that, it's actually a minor annoyance. With the way the interface used to be laid out, there was never a need for my mouse to move to the upper-right corner. Everything I needed was in the top left: Back, Refresh, Home, Favorite. Now that the favorite icon is in the top right, it's the odd man out. The mouse now has to make a special trip over there.

New Edit menu

Who at Google thought this was a good idea? Generally when you build an application on top of an existing operating system that you didn't develop, you try to make the experience seamless with that OS. You'll notice that all iPhone applications share the same type of buttons and inputs as those created by Apple. Likewise, all Windows programs have an Edit menu. It's just one of those things you don't mess with. Save reinventing the wheel for Chrome OS.

My inexpensive office security camera - better and cheaper than some professional systems

Despite the fact that the work I do is not top secret, nor do I have any enemies, I have always felt safer and better protected with the presence of security cameras. You just never know what you might pick up. Plus, I often work late at night and my office is next to a bar, and since my car sits outside, I like to be able to keep an eye on it at all times.

I've toyed around with semi-professional security systems (the kind that have dedicated DVRs and indoor/outdoor camera with LEDs for night vision), and basic wifi cameras for my house. Neither produce very high quality video. If you need to analyze somebody's face or try to read a license plate, you're pretty much screwed. The best you can get is a description of what someone is wearing or the model of a car.

When I went to set up my office cameras, a buddy of mine suggested using webcams. Typically we think of webcams as low-quality cameras that we use to talk to relatives or co-workers over Skype. But in reality, the quality of webcams have vastly improved in recent years. I've been using Microsoft's LifeCam, a 720p HD webcam for Skype, and am always being told how crisp and clear I look (and I'll take all the help I can get).

So I employed the same webcams for my security cameras, and they work great! The nice thing about these cameras in that they use a small footprint, and they are USB powered so you only need one cord running to it. Plus with USB extension cable with a built-in repeater for $10, you can safely wire a camera from a good distance from a computer. And image quality is great even at night. These Microsoft HD webcams used to run around $79. I just picked up another one on Amazon for $52.99.

I use a recording program from DeskShare called Security Monitor Pro that costs $90. This software allows me to start recording on motion detection. It takes video clips, still picture, and can even email me the media or publish to an ftp server. I record my cameras at 10fps, which allows me to see enough action so I don't miss anything, while not overloading my CPUs.

Then at the core of it all is a dedicated Acer Aspire. I picked up this $500 computer from Fry's. It's loaded with an Intel i3 at 3.06GHz with 6GB of RAM and a 1TB hard drive. It's amazing how inexpensive technology is these days. I previously had a lower-end Dell recording, but it only had a single core and it choked when I tried to view and record two near-HD streams.

So for as little as $700, I have a security system that is computer-based, and actually records higher quality video than typical dedicated prosumer security rigs.

Like I said, this is a little over the top for my needs, but it's nice to be able to see my surroundings. If you're looking to set up a basic security rig, I definitely recommend going this route. Like I said, I've toyed with lots of possibilities, and since this system records high quality video with great features that lets me see what's going on when I'm away from the office, there are really no downsides.

What was going to be a rant about Hulu turned into praise about Hulu customer support

Problem = unhappy user
Last night I was infuriated by the fact that I was served three consecutive ads on Hulu. I thought to myself, "this is getting to be as bad as regular TV." I tweeted my disapproval, and then followed up by saying I was going to cancel my Hulu Plus account and then write a blog about how much I now hate them.

While I did end up canceling my Hulu Plus account, my bitterness toward Hulu was resolved by a few helpful tweets from @Hulu_Support, and thus, this post turns from a hateful rant about how Hulu is selling out (and how worthless Hulu Plus is, as the moment), to how much I appreciate attentive customer support.

A courteous reply from a company can completely change a user's opinion
As it turns out, the fact that Hulu ran three consecutive ads during a TV show is apparently a bug, and wasn't supposed to happen. I was informed of this by @Hulu_Support. The interesting thing is how little it takes to make people happy online (at least me). All the Hulu support rep did was admit the mistake and collect some information from me so they could troubleshoot the issue. Who knows if they're actually going to do anything with the information they got from me, but it was nice of them to ask. Also another observation: Hulu Support uses your first name when @replying. I thought this was a nice way to engage users, by responding to people and not just Twitter handles. A nice touch.

Great examples of customer support via Twitter: Hulu, Zappos, American Express
Other businesses should take notice of how businesses like Hulu, Zappos, and even American Express handle customer support on Twitter. I recently tweeted about Zappos, without expecting a response. As it turns out, Thomas Knoll, Community Architect at Zappos responded from his personal Twitter account, an account he doesn't typically use for customer support. This likely mindless action that took just a couple seconds on his part reaffirmed my positive opinion about Zappos, an opinion that is not likely to change based on that short encounter.

Ad overload (and a rant about newspaper websites)

We all know newspapers are dying (even with ad revenue from their websites), but this looks to be a move of desperation. Here I am, trying to visit the site of our local newspaper, the Orange County Register, and I can't even read the article because a giant leaderboard ad is covering the story. And there is no way to close the ad. Ridiculous.

An even larger issue, besides the fact that I can't read the story, is that the interface of the website itself is terrible. In this particular post (screenshotted below), you'll notice that the entire article copy is below the fold. ("Below the fold" refers to the part of the website you can't see without scrolling.) Even if you aren't familiar with common web practices, it's kind of common sense that you should at least be able to read a little bit of the article without having to scroll.

Way too much space is taken up by those ridiculous Facebook Share, Tweet, and comment icons, and Facebook "recommend" link. I could go on and on and on...

Hey Register, hire me and you'll go out of business slower.

Oh, and their Twitter username is "OCReggie". Seriously?

How to avoid eye strain and neck pain while using a computer

"More people are showing up at eye appointments complaining of headaches, fatigue, blurred vision and neck pain—all symptoms of computer-vision syndrome (CVS), which affects some 90% of the people who spent three hours or more at day at a computer, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Healthy."

The above quote comes from a Wall Street Journal article published yesterday. If this is true, the only reason the percentage is so high is because people don't know the simple steps to avoid these symptoms. Here are a few things I do to make sure I never have to leave my computer...unless I really want to.

Adjust Monitor Brightness
I think the single largest reason why people have trouble sitting in front of a computer screen for an extended period of time is because their screen is too bright. Most monitors are set to be way too bright by default. Try turning the brightness all the way down. It will make your eyes think you're looking at a piece of paper rather than staring into a flashlight. (Make sure you adjust your brightness and not your contrast.)

Ambient Light
I like to keep my office pretty dark, but it's important the ambient light in the room doesn't contrast too greatly with the physical world. For example, if my monitor is bright and my room is dark, it's going to hurt my eyes because of the stark contrast. This is why your parents always used to tell you to watch TV with a light on (at least my parents did). But an environment that's too bright isn't great either. When I used to sit in a cube all day, I had the florescents above me ripped out. Distancing yourself from ambient light in a close proximity is a good idea.

Monitor Height
A lot of times, neck pain is caused from leaning down to look at a computer screen (this happens a lot when working on a laptop). Whenever possible, make sure your monitor is at your eye level. I would suggest that if you're looking straight out from your chair, at least 1/3 of your monitor should be above your eye level. I used to set my monitors on books. Now I use actual monitor stands that get my monitors off my desk by about 4 inches. Avoiding looking down will help reduce neck strain.

Back Support & Sitting Position
I never work in front of a computer without a pillow behind my lower back. Even actual back supports from office supply stores don't work well. I recommend an actual pillow. It helps keep the upper body back and upright. It also helps keep my head back to where I sometimes rest it on the back of my chair. This reinforces the last idea to keep your head looking straight on rather than bending forward and looking down.

Even Multiple Monitors Help!
This isn't for everybody, but...I work in front of an array of 3 or 4 very large monitors. I think doing so actually helps keep my eyes fresh and my neck from hurting, because I have to physically turn my head to the left and right to see all my screens. This keeps me from focusing in a single, small area for too long at any given time, and it also reminds me to blink when I turn my head.

These suggestions definitely aren't scientific - they're just a few bits of common sense that I've realized over my time using computers. Hope this helps keep you pain-free!

Hulu's most blatant user experience mistake

I've been using Hulu for almost three years now, and it's been exciting to watch it develop into a near-mainstream solution for watching TV online. I'm a subscriber of Hulu Plus, and while it has its own issues (missing past episodes of shows, too many ads in a paid product, etc), it's still the easiest way to catch HD TV shows online.

However, there is a glaring UX mistake on the Queue page where users can stack up future videos to watch. I'm surprised no one at Hulu has caught this and fixed it yet.

The problem: When hovering over a show thumbnail on the queue page, a play icon appears, but clicking on the play button/thumbnail takes the user to the show's index page, rather than the video page.

Over time, it has become an accepted standard that a play icon indicates that something will start playing when the icon is clicked. In this case, the play icon doesn't actually play a video. Instead to play a video, the user has to click on the video title. (Everywhere else on the site, clicking on a play button starts playing a video.)

I can't count the number of times I have mindlessly clicked on the thumbnail/play button, expecting the video to start playing. If I were consciously thinking about where I am clicking, I would know not to click on the thumbnail. But too many times, I don't actually think about what I'm doing. I see a play button and I click on it - it's just a habit that has been formed over years of clicking play buttons, and I have been conditioned over time to expect a specific action to take place.

You might say I'm nit-picking, and this whole blog is over nothing important at all. And you wouldn't be wrong. But it's stuff like this that defines a great user experience. A great user experience is one that takes into account the mindless users like myself and gets me where I want to go, the first time.