Posts Tagged ‘contextual features’

A Good Engineer can Simplify the World in Time

November 30, 2012

Engineering is the challenge of making something complicated actually work the way you expect it to every time for everyone. This might sound simple – maybe even trivial – it’s not at all. Most people take it for granted that pushing a button has the result you expect every time you do it – on your phone, microwave oven, television, automobile, etc. But, it is a complicated world, and between you, me and the fencepost, well, maybe you shouldn’t take those things for granted…

Two events prompted this post:

American Airlines records for personal information were updated today again and again (and again) until successful.

Apple iTunes 11 was released – more than a facelift – a redesign…

These two events today were meaningful for me as an engineer.  I’ll tell you why:

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American Airlines – they need a good engineer to tweak their website. Type a number from a card into a blank – push SUBMIT – should be done and over with…  Nope.

Type in a three field number separated by dashes literally from the official card in hand. Press SUBMIT. Get a “success” confirmation. Log out, log in again, and no change was actually made.

Type the number in again. Press SUMBIT. Get an “error – not a valid number” message, and I am scratching my head… The number on my Government card looks precisely like the number I typed.

Type the number again – without dashes. Press SUBMIT. Get a “success” confirmation. Log out, log in again, and the change was made this time successfully. Were the dashes the problem? Or will I be plagued with issues because the dashes are necessary, and they aren’t there even though the entry was submitted successfully?

This should have been such a simple thing to do. But a false success status, then an error without any hints. And finally a true success status on the third try… BAD American Airlines needs a good engineer to make the website work the way you expect it to every time for everyone. I’ll volunteer – for a fee! It would be a simple matter to say, “Do Not Include Dashes” next to the field – if, in fact that was the problem. Frankly, I am not confident that the dashes were the problem, but they probably were…

The American Airlines website issues are deeper than this one issue. Make changes in your profile, and they do not “ripple through” to your reservations, and vice versa. There will be occasions when your profile information and reservation information differ, and the engineering challenge is to accommodate that. There will be occasions when the “ripple through” will require you to revisit some kind of resubmission or confirmation of something you did previously, and those steps must be presented to the user reliably and only when necessary – yup, challenging to do correctly. When a credential expires – a passport, for example, the website does not prompt you to update the stale record, and it should. Instead, every customer stumbles on these details in the website, and we all fume about it.

A good engineer could simplify AA.com greatly. It just takes time an money…

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iTunes – it was starting to look clunky in version 10 with all the sidebar stuff and then the cloud stuff. I was a little frustrated with this application. It worked quite differently on my Mac and iPhone. The iCloud features were sometime a little mysterious. It was becoming a complicated media application. And it was really two applications – one for the Mac and one for the iPhone. Yesterday, I was accustomed to its idiosyncrasies. Today, well, frankly, I am not sure what I think. Most people do not like change – change requires relearning, and many people don’t do that very well. Apple tasked a bunch of engineers to make this complicated clunker a much simpler application.

I’m relearning right this minute! The new iTunes tries to be more “contextual” – it tries to do what you want it to do in the most convenient manner possible for the task you are performing. It may display the same information to you several different ways depending on what you are actually doing. Browsing? Browsing to see “what’s around the next corner”? Or browsing to find something that is right on the tip of your tongue. Or browsing to find something specific. Browsing music? Movies? Podcasts? The new iTunes tries to present your library to you in the best way possible depending on just exactly what you are doing.

My take right now is that the new iTunes only halfway succeeds in using context to present your library. You can’t “train” it very well. You can set some preferences – many on the fly to sharpen its behavior, but there are not enough cues to the user, and there are not enough injection points for preferences. I can see what Apple is trying to do, and they will do better over time.

For now, I can’t find any way to turn on the old iTunes cover flow display of album covers, and I liked that feature…  Maybe it is gone. Maybe I haven’t discovered how to turn it on. Instead, there is a nifty array of covers like what you might see in the iTunes Store, and any cover can be “exploded” to show the songs. Nifty, but I liked the cover flow and the comprehensive songs list right below. Well, maybe I can “relearn”! But, maybe I don’t have to – maybe there is a way to do what I want, and I don’t know how, yet… iTunes gets a “thumbs up” – it is simpler (it IS simpler where it can be), and it seems to work just fine. Done by good engineers!

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Here is what we will see new in iTunes in the future, and I think that Apple will establish some challenging expectations for PC and phone application and website behavior in the near term:

Contextual features – subtle, intuitive differences in behavior for the same functionality depending on what you are actually trying to do at the moment:

Make it simpler when it can probably be simpler.

Say less when you probably just want to know the summary.

Say more when you want to know all the dirty details.

Know to do that all without the application asking or you telling.

Adaptive features – learn what you want to do and how you want to do it from what you just did. If you change a preference or setting, method or workflow, the computer will do one of four things depending on context and obtrusiveness and usage patterns:

Ask if this is “how you want to do it the next time, too?”

Or, ask the next time you do it if you “want to do it the same way you did it the last time?”

Or, just let the change “stick” or persist without a confirmation.

Or, revert back to the previous behavior without a confirmation.

You can imagine that contextual and adaptive features are rather “fuzzy”. Some shaaarp programmers and revolutionary new programming tools are required before software tries to do more than the new iTunes. It will take a couple of good engineers and some time for the next “spin” of iTunes.

My point here is that it takes a good engineer – maybe an exceptional engineer to truly simplify something complicated. As I work in this world day to day, I am convinced that money-making objectives tend to cast the exceptional engineer aside and opt for the mediocre instead of the refined from someone less talented and passionate. I have been told directly on more than one occasion, “Brian, we don’t need it to be as good as you want to make it.”

Well, a good engineer with enough time can be certain to simplify the world in some meaningful way and do something tremendous – and virtually unnoticed – because it just works the way it should every time for everybody.

So, “Stay tuned!”  Um, ah, “Stay iTuned!”

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