Monday, June 29, 2009

R.I.P. Sheila Bleizeffer

If memory serves, it was in early spring in 1996 that my wife Karen was volunteering at the SPCA, and she asked me to come in and meet one of the dogs. We already had Indigo (an Australian Shepherd) at this point, who was a handful, to say the least, so after the requisite browbeating I agreed to go in and meet this dog. I insisted that I was only going to meet the dog, but we were not bringing the dog home that day... which just goes to show my level of naivete at that point in our marriage.

We came home with Sheila that day. Her given name was "Shula" (maybe her original owners were Miami Dolphin fans), and given that she was an Australian Cattledog (mostly) and she was female, we decided to change her name slightly to Sheila. Get it? Australian female? Sheila? Yeah, we're clever.

Sheila died in my arms around 3:45 today, June 29th, 2009, after the cancer in her jaw and throat made it difficult for her to breathe. She stopped eating yesterday, and she couldn't sleep because it took too much effort to breathe to relax enough to sleep. It was her time.

Sheila was the antithesis of Indigo. Indigo was too smart for her own good (it's never good to have a dog that is smarter than its owners). She was willful and mischievous... and we loved her. She seemed to take a perverse enjoyment out of pushing our buttons.

But not Sheila. Sheila was eager to please. If she ever misbehaved, it was obviously a mistake because she would be devastated to think that she had done something wrong. Indigo thought anyone who came to the door was Jason Vorhees incarnate. Sheila thought everyone was a potential friend.

Our cats would rub up against Sheila's legs and spoon with her when she was sleeping. And she wouldn't complain.

And she purred when she was happy.

When he was a baby, our son Tyler used to gleefully grab Sheila's fur and hold on tight until he got bored or Sheila's fur detached. Sheila never complained.

Our daughter Carson has a friend named Rebecca. She invited Rebecca over for a playdate, but Rebecca and her mom were concerned because Rebecca was deathly afraid of dogs. We told them "You've got to meet Sheila." They met. Rebecca is no longer afraid of dogs... in fact, she now wants to get a dog of her own.

Old age was not particularly kind to Sheila. She developed arthritis and had bouts of severe joint pain over her last couple of years. At one point it got so bad that I built her a ramp to get up the two steps from the sidewalk to our front porch, and I was convinced that she didn't have much longer. Then, amazingly, she recovered. She still had trouble and couldn't make it up the stair to the second floor, but her mobility increased enough that worries about her quality of life went away. For the last two years it felt like we were living on borrowed time.

Then, a little over a month ago, she started snoring while awake. A quick Google search suggested it was probably allergies, so we switched her food, but it didn't help. So I took her to the vet and they found severe cancer in her jaw and neck that was obstructing her nasal passages and throat. There was nothing to be done at that point but try to make her comfortable. The pain medication helped a little, but when she stopped eating we knew it was time.

Of course, the thing I'll miss most about Sheila is that she loved me far more than I deserve. We all need as much of that in our lives as we can get.

Goodbye, Sheila, I love you too.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Killer robots want good user experience too!

Dr. Pete has posted a presentation on his blog called "Attack of the Bad Usability!" that deserves more than just a shared feed... short, funny, and informative are three things that go great together.

Check it out.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Nielsen says to stop password masking

Jacob Nielsen says that we should Stop Password Masking in his latest AlertBox article. His argument is simple -- we are very, very rarely in a situation where we're typing in a password while someone is looking over our shoulder. It's extremely common for us to be typing in a password when we're alone. So why not showing our passwords as we type? And, he suggests, have a checkbox to mask the password for those rare situations when someone actually is watching us type.

This reminds me of a situation I ran into a few years ago. A server product I was supporting got complaints from customers because we were showing passwords in property files. A central aspect of security for the server was file system security, so there was no issue with an unauthorized person being able to open the property file and see the password (if they could do that, they wouldn't need the password, the entire system would be vulnerable). So the issue was solely around looking-over-the-shoulder scenarios where someone would need to open the property file with someone watching. There was a clear usability degradation from occluding the password in the file, so we asked customers to give us examples of situations where this looking over the shoulder would be a problem. Their response? It doesn't matter! Passwords should always be occluded! Just in case!

We masked the passwords in the property file.

So I have a lot of sympathy for Nielson's position. But I'm not completely convinced. For example, the one fairly common scenario I can think of where masking is needed is when screen sharing during a web conference. I'm on web conferences all the time, and I'd estimate that there are at least a couple times a week where someone types in a password while screen sharing. And note that Nielsen says that some passwords (like for bank accounts) should perhaps be occluded by default, but there's nothing special about passwords when screen sharing. In other words, during design we can't anticipate whether this is a password that is likely to be used during a web conference. If users have to click a "mask" checkbox before typing a password in a web conference, lots of people will forget... potentially exposing their password to not ONE person looking over their shoulder, but scores of people on a web conference. That seems like a very real concern.

But in terms of baby steps, I like the idea of having a checkbox to mask passwords that is always checked by default. If you're surprised when you first password attempt fails, you can uncheck it and make sure you're typing in it in correctly.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Mr. X and Dustin Curtis

Via a Tweet from @uxforward, I encountered Dustin Curtis's admonishment of American Airlines, the reply from a UX architect at (and Dustin's response to it).

I love the internet.

Anyway, I found this exchange to be fascinating. The main thing that resonated with me was Mr. X's statement:

But—and I guess here’s the thing I most wanted to get across—simply doing a home page redesign is a piece of cake. You want a redesign? I’ve got six of them in my archives. It only takes a few hours to put together a really good-looking one, as you demonstrated in your post. But doing the design isn’t the hard part, and I think that’s what a lot of outsiders don’t really get, probably because many of them actually do belong to small, just-get-it-done organizations. But those of us who work in enterprise-level situations realize the momentum even a simple redesign must overcome, and not many, I’ll bet, are jumping on this same bandwagon. They know what it’s like.


This reminds me of the book review I did on Robert Hoekman's "designing the obvious". In the review, I said, "The only major problem I had with the book, and it's not all that major, is that it was written with an assumption that bad design happens out of ignorance for many of the principles he is espousing. That people are not doing things the right way because they don't know the difference between the right way and the wrong way. Clearly, this is sometimes true, but I think it's the exception to the rule (at least it is the exception when there are professional usability people involved in the project... and the audience for the book seems to be professional usability people)."

To net it out -- coming up with a good design is the EASIEST part of creating a well-designed product. Hell, it's almost trivial.

Dustin thinks this is a cop-out. In a sense he's right - it's a cop-out from the perspective of American Airlines as a company, but it's not a cop-out from the perspective of Mr. X. American Airlines, like any large corporation, has to figure out how to deliver well-designed products in spite of the difficulties that come from being mammoth. But Mr. X wasn't excusing AA from responsibility and he wasn't saying that nothing could be done. He was just pointing out (far more politely than I would have) that's Dustin's belief that the problem with was that no one could tell good design from bad design was hopelessly naive.

Of course, Dustin's argument that the problem must be that AA's CEO lacks "taste" doesn't dispel the naivete charge. Dustin's heart is in the right place, but I think he really doesn't understand how large enterprises work.