30 September 2008

Trash-Talking the Competition

Look I'm not gonna bullshit anybody here; I'm going to come right out and say this. I believe that I have found the worst website on the Internet. It is the 2Advanced Studios website. Yes that's right. The worst website in the world is for a web design firm. Oh the sweet sweet irony of it.

On loading the website you're treated to a bewilderingly long eight second load animation. It's hard to imagine many company websites that are worth an eight second wait, but I was willing to live with that. The landing page is an expansive Aztek-inspired cityscape that looks like something that would be airbrushed on the side of a conversion van in Tijuana. Okay. That's fine too. It's not my style but it's gotta be someone's.

The first thing that I would say was morally objectionable web design is the navigation. The navigation is not normally expanded, and once expanded gives you a few options. Each of these opens the next tier of its hierarchy in the next column, and the next tier operates the same way. If you mouse off of the menu it vanishes to give you a better view of that futuristic Tenochtitl├ín. Cool, right? So to navigate the site you have to hit a series of 10px tall targets in sequence or have to start all over again. Clicking on any of these will result in another load animation and a change of background. The common theme seems to be Aztek pyramids. Oh and check this out! The best part is that every page has a "hide/show content" button you can press if you wanted to check out that sweet background just one more time. 

This website is upfront and unabashed about it's, if you'll forgive the pun, flashiness. Being a man for whom having flash-based navigation for a website is a cardinal sin, I frown upon such flashturbation. It cheapens the whole industry.

Here's what I don't get, though. If their website is to be believed they have tons of cred. They list an impressive list of projects they've worked on and a decent list of clients. There's even extensive awards and magazine articles. Recent ones, too, but I hadn't heard of any of the magazines. Their work is mentioned in a couple of books on Flash design, too. It's puzzling to me because their portfolio is filled with the most gaudy and disgusting examples of flashturbation, and their own website is just terrible. If these guys can somehow make it then maybe I've got a chance in this business after all.

Wish me luck, space cadets.

27 September 2008

RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER

I've always been intrigued by culture jamming and graffiti, and I love mysterious things, so it's inevitable that some day I would come across Toynbee idea tiles in my daily musings. I'd read about them a few months ago I think on Damn Interesting or, more likely, on the Wikipedia category for mysteries, which I frequently read. After a hiatus I became interested in them again, this time searching for a list of known tile locations. I found one, but it was on the now-defunct toynbee.net. It is still available through the gracious services of the Internet Wayback Machine though.

After work one day last week I didn't quite feel like going home, so I walked up to the shopping district around the Hancock building. It was a spontaneous outing but my current contract is very close to that area of Chicago, just a few blocks. As I got closer I started to get kind of excited though. I'd been in the Hancock/Water Tower district of Chicago many times but had never really paid this much attention. I found myself looking down at my feet while I walked over every crosswalk, stopping sometimes to inspect an anomalous bit of tar on the asphalt. As I walked around, passing intersections I knew once had tiles, I could see tiny remnants at best. I found myself questioning whether I'd seen what I'd seen, little scraps of blackened tar without the distinctive lettering of one of the tiles. All the while I was marveling at how many people were surrounding me, how many cars were passing, and just how busy this part of Chicago is all the time. How could he, the one responsible, have successfully placed so many in this, the busiest part of Chicago? It truly is an amazing achievement that he was never caught in the act. All we have of his identity is whispers in the media from the 1970s and an address in Philadelphia (from the Santiago, Chile tiles) that is probably wrong.

I was close to giving up on the search. The city of Chicago has stated that they see the tiles as vandalism (a difference of opinion they have with Philadelphia, the likely birthplace of the tiles, where they are seen as being worthy of some preservation), so most likely they were all destroyed by the time I set about my search. I did find one, though, at the next-to-last location I would search. Just barely visible on the northmost edge of the northmost stripe of the crosswalk between Water Tower Place and the Hancock building were the words "TOYNBEE IDEA".

It was that moment that I had been seeking, the moment when this phenomenon I'd only read about became a real, tangible thing. I don't know how old the tile was, nor how just that one line of it had survived and the rest had gone away, but I was thankful to see my momentary obsession rewarded. The tile looked like it was made with hardened modeling clay and despite its age the colours in the type still contrasted neatly with the white of the crosswalk stripe, and with the white backing of the tile. I knew from my research that it was made of true linoleum—apparently difficult to come by in the United States—and despite the sloppiness of the letters they were at least consistent across tiles. They looked as though they'd been fabricated and placed very carefully just there. There was purpose to it, as though the tiler had wanted his work to be as visible as possible. Yet he put them all on streets where no one looks down.

If the tiler was indeed insane—and I think by the paranoid inscriptions frequently found beneath tiles he probably was—I would at least like to know what idea it was he was trying to spread. The idea of resurrecting the dead on Jupiter is so outside the realm of possibility that it bears no consideration, but what if there's a shallower meaning behind all of it, and the tile text is inconsequential to that? Perhaps it's his attempt at metaphor.

I don't think we'll ever know.

16 September 2008

Tearing Down the Enterprise

I've been working as a contract web developer on and off for a couple of years now, and I've seen some pretty bizarre enterprise applications in my day. I've worked with Microsoft business applications before and now PeopleSoft for time reporting, and I've got to say...

We deserve better.

I don't mean "we" as in contract web developers or even "we" as in freelancers in general. I mean that the entire business as a whole deserves better, freelancers, companies, and full-time employees. If, in 2008, these applications are really the best that is possible, that just makes me want to cry. Let's look at PeopleSoft since it's the freshest in my memory.

Absolutely every interaction with the page (it's web-based) generates a post-back, which just seems unnecessary. I know it's mostly a consequence of using Microsoft technologies, but it's really annoying when merely reloading a page or hitting your browser's "back" button can completely hose whatever it was you were doing. To enter hours, you have to scroll horizontally (a huuuuge inconvenience for anyone who doesn't have a mouse that scrolls sideways), and furthermore not all the information you need is in one column so you have to scrub back and forth sometimes. Also, there is too much information on the page, your changes aren't autosaved even though with postbacks clearly that would be possible (it appears to have been omitted intentionally), but that's not really the problem here.

The problem is that there's too much information in the system, there's only one path to each page in the system, and none of the steps to get there are named intuitively. This is a huge problem. Web applications especially need multiple paths for each process. You need to be able to get to the timesheet application multiple ways. It sounds silly at first but as you use the web and use computers more you realize that not everybody does things the way you do. I use my keyboard almost exclusively but I know people who are much more comfortable actually browsing through menus rather than remembering keyboard shortcuts. This is an important distinction and if an application were to omit one of these methods half the people would feel alienated. I would personally hate having to browse menus for things all the time and many others would hate having to remember tons of key combinations. These are the people who would rather use WordPad than vim or emacs. And you know what? That's fine. There is no "right" way to interact with an application. Don't impose one on your users.

The naming and clutter are serious problems. As a contractor I do not need to see the options for vacation time. Also, it doesn't make a goddamn bit of sense that the area for me to enter my hours is under "Travel and Expenses". I am neither traveling nor am I expensing things. As a contractor, in fact, I am an expense. Further complicating the process is that even the travel and expense center is under "Employee Self-Service". I am not an employee, so this wasn't really the first place I looked when I was first using PeopleSoft.

I think the true gauge of the success of an application is how much training is required to use it. Obviously this isn't true of specialty applications like Photoshop or Illustrator or even things like vim. These are applications that you have to learn to use, and that's fine because if you're learning to use them clearly you have a task that requires them. For an application like this that a wide variety of people must use—and use quickly so that it doesn't take up a significant portion of their day—it is absolutely unforgivable that it be so complex it requires training of any kind. A contractor should be able to come into a system, enter his/her hours, and get out so quickly and intuitively that s/he hardly notices the task. Entering hours is not hard work, so it should be a trivial part of your day.

Something must be done about this situation. It should never be the case that you're spending significant amounts of your time cursing your software. The software should be a transparent layer, an extension of your mind into the abstract world. You shouldn't even notice it.

My point is that the world deserves software that is enterprise-capable, but not enterprise-like. The world deserves software that works with users not against them, that knows when to assist and when to get out of the way. All it'll take is a couple of companies seeing their productivity suddenly jump for the change to start.

I'll see you all at the enterprise revolution, space cadets.