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Oct 13

Forget folders, leverage your history

Posted on Wednesday, October 13, 2010 in Uncategorized

You know the feeling; how do you find that site which you visited some months ago whose link you no longer have? Why did you not bookmark it when you visited it? Ok, I hear you, you didn’t know that you would need it again.

But before we get to finding the address, let’s examine how it is commonly done today. It normally goes something like this: you find a site, you like it, then you bookmark it for later. Except that the bookmarking is hardly always that easy. You have to organize your bookmarks, tag them correctly, put them in the right folder, and so on.

bookmarking

That’s a lot of work for the chance that you might need the site later. So a lot people don’t bookmark sites at all. Then we’re back at the question of ‘how do you find that particular site’. This is why I was particularly stoked when awhile back, Firefox introduced the “Awesome bar”. Firefox as I remember, was one of the first browsers to introduce this feature but most major browsers today have some version of it.

The basic premise is that when you start typing in the “Awesome bar”, it searches your history, bookmarks (and open tabs in Firefox 4) to find pages with content or addresses similar to what you are typing. For example, my search for ‘awesome’ turns up this:

firefox_awesome_bar

I find this so useful that I have little incentive to bookmark anymore. If I even vaguely remember what the site was about, then I type in a few keywords and Firefox finds the page for me. I find that Google Chrome’s implementation is weaker that Firefox’s (which is ironic as Google is search market leader). Chrome does not take full advantage of my browsing history as I would like it to when searching and results are not very comprehensive. IE 9 does a decent job however.

With Firefox Sync (built-in in Firefox 4, but available as add-on for previous versions), you can leverage your browsing history on multiple computers and even on your phones. Of course, all this will not help you if you do not keep a search history. If you use bookmarks a lot, I recommend adding useful tags to your bookmarks so that you can easily find the site later.

So always remember: you have a history, leverage it.

Jul 19

Well, this is embarrassing.

Posted on Monday, July 19, 2010 in Uncategorized

It is a well known fact in software development that users do not read. Whether it be your nicely formatted error dialog box or some long introduction on your website. Your users generally just scan the text, click ok (or cancel, whichever is convenient) and move on. But when they do scan your text, you want to make sure they get the message right.

Getting the message right is not as trivial as it sounds. Sometimes, you the developer just forget that your user interface text is not aimed at programmers. (That’s what code comments are for). Other times, some text can be interpreted to mean something else. Let’s examine an example in Firefox.

Most modern browsers have a session recovery feature. This is the feature which makes sure that after a browser crash, you can get back to where you were on the Interwebs, tabs and all. Firefox has had this feature for a while now. If you are a regular Firefox user, then you have probably seen this page before.

firefox_embarrasing

Now most geeks or techie types will think nothing of this page. You have probably read about it on many different blogs before the feature was ever released and already know the message written there by heart. You will either click ‘Restore’  or ‘Start New Session’ and get going.

But I recently happened to be able to observe the reaction of a normal (non-techie) user when seeing this page for the first time. My cousin switched on the computer and opened the browser. It seemed the computer had been force shutdown, so the page that came up first was the one above. I noticed the look of horror on my cousin’s face and the question “What did I do?”. I quickly rushed over and when I noticed the page, I went on the reassure her that it was ok and clicking restore would do the trick.

This was an interesting experience for me. I personally had never given second thought to the message before. What about you? Think about the displayed message for a bit.

firefox_embarrasing_msg

Most users will only ever read the text in bold. “Well, this is embarrassing.” Without the explanatory text below, it seems to be telling the user that they have done something embarrassing which is causing Firefox not to display the page. Therefore, by implication, the crash is their fault. So while Mozilla may have meant this to be some fun, tongue-in-cheek message (and I personally like it), it may convey a totally wrong meaning and blame to some users.

Let’s look at how Chrome communicates a tab crash to the user.

chrome_crash_msg

The icon already informs the user that something went wrong, and the explanatory text tries to be as simple and direct as possible (although users may still not read it). The message above is shown when a single tab crashes, due to Chrome’s multi-process architecture. What about the case where the whole browser crashes? This is what you see.

chrome_restore

This view simply offers the choice to restore the tabs and spares the users the details. It both crash cases in Chrome, note the use of language which avoids blaming the user (or inferring blame).

Hopefully, next time you are writing any text in software which is to be seen by a mere mortal, you will think a bit more about it. Always remember that the more words there are, the less likely your users will read them. So let your words be few, and direct to the point!