24 December 2010 ~ 0 Comments

One Bright Spot

Pokin and I have had a lot of trouble with Wells Fargo through the years.  First they submit my name to the Secret Service for counterfeiting after I returned from a trip to Africa (don’t ask) and then they accidentally charge me for 4 years of monthly bill pay fees. The list goes on…

Where they have excelled is in the usability of their ATMs.  I’ve joked about this in the past though since then, things are much improved.  You can now receive scanned images of your cheques, send receipts directly to your email, etc.

Here’s another example from today.  Check out the previous iteration of the ATM login screen:

This is the new login screen:

Wait, how is this a login screen?  Where are the login buttons?  They have been replaced with what are essentially navigation items.

“Do you want $60 in cash with a receipt from your checking account (which is what you’re most likely to do)?  Or would you like to do something else?”

Contrast this to the previous workflow which required  you to login and choose from a hierarchical menu (withdraw – select account – how much?) to complete your transaction.  Wells’ ATMs have gotten better at saving and promoting your most commonly used actions and this is taking it one very large step further.  This means that most of the time I won’t ever have to make it past the login screen.

Won’t people be confused by the lack of a ‘standard’ login process?  In this case, here’s what Wells has going for them:

  • Your interaction vocabulary with the ATM is one of touch, either via the screen or physical keypad.  Yes, something is different about this prompt but since navigation never occurs on the keypad, one of these two buttons is surely the path forward.  Even if you took a guess, you’d have a 50% chance of doing the right thing :)
  • The most likely action is called out with the use of color.  I would prefer if the less likely action had a bit less contrast (jet black on white has the highest contrast ratio).

This is a subtle and interesting change that’s worthy of consideration in other domains.

09 June 2010 ~ 0 Comments

“Go! Get to the choppa!”

A little while ago I wrote about Netflix and being puzzled about having a system that suggests movies it thinks you won’t like.  Like an airliner, where are the backup systems that go into place when the system is about to do something seemingly so strange as to suggest you do something you won’t enjoy?

Here we have FlightTracker Pro, a generally great application… except when you need it most.

There’s been some inclement weather around San Francisco and FlightTracker informs me that a flight to Vancouver, Canada has been delayed by 1h50m.  About an hour later, FlightTracker updates:

I know what you’re thinking, “Four bars?  With AT&T?!”  Don’t let it distract you :)  A flight departing early?  I mean, let alone on time but early?  Amazing! Time to hustle to SFO!

YouTube Preview Image

Checking the Air Canada site clued me in – nope, it was still delayed.

FlightTracker might be pulling “40 minutes early” from its web service although the iPhone application is certainly free to report on that data as it sees fit.

Ticket fine print states that you have to be at your gate (and therefore checked in) some amount of time prior to the scheduled departure, usually 15 minutes.  Now, through some strange runway antics, you might have been bumped up in the takeoff order but that would mean your boarding time would have been ridiculously early (again, not possible) for this to happen.

I’m surprised the logic exists to report an early flight.  It had to be in there because the determination was made to color the message green.  Is there value in reporting an early departure?  Should I leave early for the airport? If not, it would seem as though FlightTracker has (at least) three options:

  1. Report “on time”.
  2. Suggest that I check the airline’s site.
  3. Present a link in place of the message that calls the airline’s automated flight check line.

Of the three, I would prefer the first.  If there’s no need to change my behaviour (because the chances of a flight leaving materially early are nil) then I prefer to be blissfully unaware of the strange information FlightTracker is getting about my early departure :)

03 June 2010 ~ 0 Comments

I’m Mostly Certain…

…the Internet is just messing with me this week.

02 June 2010 ~ 0 Comments

Some Problems Occurred

Proving once again that uninstallers don’t get the testing love they deserve :)

Adobe Design Premium Uninstaller

28 March 2010 ~ 1 Comment

How to Live Longer

Took a crack at re-imagining an infographic from the Economist, from an article on life expectancy in America.

The study, published in PLoS Medicine, looked at four preventable risk factors: smoking, high blood pressure, elevated blood-glucose levels and being overweight. It then examined how these risk factors reduced life expectancy in eight population groups. … (or, put another way, could expect to gain those years if they were to live healthier lives).

Here is the original graphic:

From the title of the chart, I was expecting lifetime measured in years.  Scanning the horizontal axis were numbers in the single digits, off by a factor of 10 however they were close enough that it could be part of a surprising conclusion – perhaps life expectancies for some segments of the population were far smaller than I had imagined?  At the bottom of the chart, this would mean some life expectancies in the 30s and 40s, which is clearly incorrect.

Now searching the chart for clarifying data, I read the subtitle which explained the bar chart values.  Although to truly understand the values one has to do the math – add the “at-birth” life expectancies (shown in the left-most column) to the potential years gained (“value” of the bars).

It also seemed the exception that the male/female difference was significant enough to warrant adding so much contrast to the chart (the blue/yellow per-gender breakdowns).

Having just finished Wong’s Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics, I challenged myself to simplify the chart and improve the understandability.

Lots of changes here:

  • The major difference between the two charts is that I’m using a stacked bar to represent the additional life expectancy gained by mitigating the preventable risk factors.  It allows the chart to be expressed at a scale one might expect when thinking of life expectancies in America (i.e. total years, somewhere above 70).  It also helps you understand the baseline life expectancy for the group combined with the relative potential improvement.
  • The national average is now presented with additional contrast, so it’s clear where each group stands relative to the baseline.
  • I chose not to label the horizontal axis from 0 – 60, assuming that readers  would understand that life expectancy is given in years.
  • The male/female discrepancies are averaged out, which caused one change in the sort order.
  • Potential gains are called out on the rightmost side of the chart, as I wanted it to be clear that the sort order was from the most potential gain to the least.

Room for improvement:

  • The most important area for improvement I see is that the title implies the “how” will be prominently featured, when it’s a footnote (literally).
  • There is no legend for the chart.  I’m relying on the implication that life expectancy is frequently communicated in years, and that the rightmost label is linked to the size of the darker-shaded stacked bar segment.  This appears to be the riskiest part of the overall change?

    Having spent a few hours on this, I have a new-found respect for those info-graphing as a day job!  Very fun, very challenging.

    18 March 2010 ~ 0 Comments

    Garibaldi Lake, June 2005

    Four years ago, Pokin and I with a few friends hiked up to and around Garibaldi Lake, just north of Vancouver, BC. Calling these three pictures a “set” is being a bit generous I think ;)

    14 March 2010 ~ 5 Comments

    Comcast, Why? When You Know So Much?

    Yesterday, our Comcast cable modem began resetting the Intenet connection almost continuously. Time to swap it out! From speaking with Comcast support, this is as easy as heading to your nearest service center and trading it in – no technician necessary.

    A quick Google search landed me here, at what appears to be a pretty standard “store locator” on Comcast’s site:

    Comcast's Service Center Locator

    (1)  I’m a Comcast subscriber, accessing the Internet from my Comcast Internet account. Comcast knows I’m physically inside of their network and it knows my modem is associated with my account (to activate your modem, you have to provide your account number). If Comcast knows who I am, and where I am, then why do I have to provide any information?

    (2) Is the apartment number query necessary? Do service centers split service down the middle of an apartment building?  I realize it’s marked as optional although I can’t see why providing it helps the person filling out the form.  Taking it one step further, only the zip code might really be necessary.

    (3) Whenever you see this option you have to wonder in what context the creators of this form imagine you to be using it. At a coffee shop? In school? When would it be appropriate to forget the information someone provided in a form, unless it was their username or password, neither of which are present here.

    (4) (not numbered) What purpose do the gigantic colon characters between form fields serve?

    Points (2) – (4) are not as important as (1) because they are improvements that assume prompting you for your address is necessary.

    Given what Comcast knows about me from (1), this is what I hope to see the next time I’m looking for a service center.

    Rob's take on the Comcast Service Center Locator

    Of note:

    • What you don’t see: No prompts for location.  Comcast should figure this out from the modem/account pairing.
    • What you didn’t know: The nearest location for each type of service center is shown.  Previously you only learned that there were different types of service centers once you started searching.
    • What you didn’t know: Your nearest service center might not service you.  Each service center only “serves” different accounts.
    • What you didn’t know: If you have a Comcast voice account (as I do), you cannot exchange your hardware.  In that case, this page would show a different message rather than your nearest service center – a UI to schedule an appointment for a technician to replace your modem.  I drove from Mountain View to Sunnyvale with my modem to find this out.
    • Thumbnail map view should be zoomed out enough such that you can make gross location decision making (“Oh I see Sunnyvale there, that’s 2 hours away.”)
    • If the guess is accurate, one-click access to directions (although I could see directions provided here too).  If the guess was inaccurate, one-click access to finding additional service centers.

    There’s certainly room for improvement here.  What are the service center hours?  Are they currently open?

    All of those improvements assume Comcast buys into the notion of not asking their customers for what they already know about them.

    07 March 2010 ~ 0 Comments

    Vancouver 2010 Photos!

    Pokin and I visited Vancouver over the closing weekend of the Olympics.  Have a look in the Flickr gallery at such classics as “Terrified Man In A Pub Full of Canadians Quietly Hoping Team USA Doesn’t Get Shut Out”.

    Keeping it Under Wraps

    09 February 2010 ~ 0 Comments

    In Context

    If your advertisement comes in the form of typing instructions, perhaps an IM client isn’t the best place to advertise it :)

    08 February 2010 ~ 15 Comments

    Restoring a PC using the Windows Home Server (WHS) Restore CD

    Yesterday started well and ended well; not so much in between :)

    After finishing some laundry and cracking open The Four Steps to the Epiphany, I decided to add two, 2GB DIMMs to my wife’s Windows 7 desktop.  After inserting the memory, Windows 7 booted and proceeded to fry the hard drive (corrupting at least the boot record, likely more).  I removed the memory and spent the rest of the day attempting to perform a bare-metal restore from our newly purchased HP EX490 Windows Home Server.  Thank goodness for backups!

    The Good News: Successfully restored Pokin’s machine from the WHS backup (Time Machine-like, pretty slick).

    The Bad News: Getting the restore started took about 10 hours.

    In no particular order, here’s everything I learned.  If there’s anything missing, please leave a comment below.  Hope this helps!

    Creating a WHS Restore CD or USB Key

    Restoring Windows from a Windows Home Server is done using the Windows Home Server Computer Restore CD (download from Microsoft).

    Alternatively, you can extract the ISO to USB key if the machine doesn’t have a CD/DVD drive (e.g. netbooks) or you prefer the speed of a fast key.  I would suggest using a USB key since it will likely take a few attempts to get your network drivers right during the restore wizard and you don’t want to have to deal with re-burning CDs.  Plus, most keys have activity lights on them so you can see the key is getting used during those looong pauses while the WHS restore does who-knows-what.

    For some, creating a CD/USB key and booting is all you need to do.  The WHS restore wizard kicks in (it takes a very long time to process, be patient) and you can stop reading here.  If that doesn’t work, read on…

    WHS kindly backs up your critical drivers if you have automated backup turned on.  These files are stored with your backup on the WHS, so using another PC you can extract the drivers on to your bootable CD/USB key and the WHS restore wizard will find them during restore.  Unfortunately, there is a problem here – the WHS restore CD is 32-bit.  If you are restoring a 64-bit flavor of Windows, the drivers that WHS stores with your backup are… not that useful.  Microsoft mentions this caveat in their Windows Home Server Technical Brief for Home Computer Backup and Restore.  You mean you haven’t read it? :)

    Even if the WHS finds your drivers, that means almost nothing.  It reportedly found the drivers for my “Atheros AR8121 PCI-E Ethernet Controller” and did not properly install or configure them.  How’s this as a backdoor?  Click on help during the restore wizard, right-click “View source” on a help page which opens Notepad.  In Notepad go to File->Open, find your driver’s setup.exe, right click “open”.  Yes, this was the only way I could get my NIC drivers loaded.  Credit goes to someone in the MS support forums, which I can’t find (sorry!).

    The big takeaway is that you really should prepare (and test!) the WHS restore CD or USB key in advance.  Boot the CD and get to the point where your network is up and you can see the WHS.  You don’t want to be going through this while freaking out about your crashed drives!

    General Restore Tips

    • Be sure your Windows PCs are doing full backups every night.  That saved us.  The prospect of losing a day’s worth of work isn’t much to be concerned with, especially on a home PC.  I suppose that excludes things like term papers the day before ;)  Once you get past a day, it’s difficult to reason about what exactly you’re missing.  We’re backing up from 3am to 6am nightly.
    • If you’re going to be doing a bare-metal restore from the WHS, buy a 100′ cable ($25 at Fry’s) and plug your computer into your wireless access point, assuming the WHS is wired up as well.  Technically, restores are not supported over wireless and besides – they’re terribly slow.  My wife’s restore was ~250GB and it took so long we left it on overnight (this was wired too!).
    • Wireless security is not supported during a restore.  You won’t have a wireless network UI to configure wireless security, and it needs to be on the same subnet as the WHS.  Yet another reason to go wired!
    • During restore, the WHS does not like other backups or restores happening and (I think) this includes Time Machine.