Move Their Cheese! (and Change the Design)

I tend to complain a lot.  Which frankly, doesn't do much for what I'm complaining about.  In most cases, it comes down to "okay, here is a problem, now someone else go and fix it."  There is a direct correlation to how many people I annoy too.  The number of people I annoy increases as the magnitude of my complaining-ness (hey, a new word) increases:


If I wanted to change something, obviously I’m going about it the wrong way.  However, there is a direct correlation between how often I do something wrong and the likelihood I will get it right.  See previous image.  What that means is if I keep screwing something up, eventually I am bound to get it right.  However, what is not necessarily apparent in the chart is that if I do nothing, I won’t improve upon my actions.  Maybe it is apparent, I don’t know – I’m still working on it.

The reason I bring this up is because I keep hearing people bash/complain/hate the Office Ribbon and application Ribbons through Windows 7:

ribbon2007 The major complaint has been that people couldn’t find what they are looking for anymore.  There aren’t any menus, so they can’t figure out how to set [insert obscure property].  It doesn’t make sense to them.  They now have to change the way they think about the application.  What is unfortunate about this is that menus are a horrible interface.  You shouldn’t have to dig through 6 layers of menus to change a single property, and that’s what Office 2003 became.  The Ribbon has it’s own problems, but it also increases user productivity greatly when the user knows how to use the Ribbon effectively.  Which in lies a major problem.

Most end-users don’t like when you move their cheese.

Well now we have a problem because people also want improved systems.  Improve the system, but don’t change it.  This paradox is why fundamentally different – game changing – designs aren’t seen all that often.  We stick with what we already know because if we deviate people will complain.  It’s a very tough way to create a better interface.

So how do you create a better interface?  You keep changing it.  Guaranteed the first couple of designs are going to annoy people: i.e. the Ribbon.

This is good.

If you keep failing at designs, that means eventually you are bound to figure out what kind of interface works best.  You will never figure it out if you never change.  Without MicroBating MasterSoft’s (hey look, two new words) ego, I must say that Microsoft is doing well in this area.  They keep making lousy design decisions.  See Expression Blend UI, and listen to most non-technical office workers using Office 2007.  I’m sure there are quite a few instances in other applications as well.  However, and I must make this clear, Microsoft is doing the right thing.  They are actively trying to create better interfaces.  Yes, it will piss people off (it’s pissed me off quite a few times), but at least they are making the effort.  And that’s what counts.

EDIT: P.S. I do like the Ribbon.

Silverlight 3.0 and Why Flash Still (unfortunately) Won

Last week Silverlight 3.0 was released.  In Toronto, ObjectSharp put on a very cool launch event, with lots of great demos and compelling reasons to start using Silverlight immediately.  I was impressed, but I’m a Microsoft fan-boy (fan-boi?), so that doesn’t count.  It was certainly fitting that ObjectSharp propose using Silverlight for some parts of our new website, seeing as they won the bid to build the new site.  I saw the potential; as did a few others on the team.  However, some executives did not see the benefit.  I respect their opinion, somewhat because I have to – they can fire me after all, and mostly because they have business sense on their side.

The company is very much on the cutting edge of technology in a few respects, but very conservative in the way we choose technology.  For instance, our new site will be built on Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007.  I’d wager there are less than a hundred publically facing websites on the internet that use MOSS (probably due to complexity and cost), yet we chose to use it because of the potential in further developing it in future iterations.

Silverlight on the other hand is a different story.  Recent reports peg Silverlight penetration at around 25-30% of all browsers.  Whether or not this is accurate, who knows.  It’s the only data available.  Flash penetration is at 96%.  Now, in my opinion 25% growth in 2 years on Silverlight’s part is impressive.  Flash has been around for nearly 2 decades.  There is definitely a correlation to be made in there somewhere.

At this point, I was sold on using Silverlight.  The exec’s still weren’t.  Seeing as Silverlight is a browser plug-in, it must be installed in some way, shape, or form.  At 25%, that means our customer demographic would have around 10% penetration.  That is terrible.  Getting them to install a plug-in to view site content is a tough sell.  The executives didn’t want to scare away customers by making them install the plug-in.  SharePoint doesn’t need a browser plug-in.

And here in lies the Catch-22

To expand our marketed audience, we build on Silverlight to give them more content that is better authored to their needs.  In doing so, we lose customers because they need to install the plug-in.  There is no metric at this point in time to help us extrapolate the difference.  There is a reasonable risk involved with using such cutting-edge technology.  We will use it when browser penetration is high enough, yet browser penetration won’t grow if sites like ours don’t use Silverlight.

Ah Well

I’m a technology risk taker.  I live on the bleeding edge.  I run Exchange 2010 beta, on Server 2008 virtualized on Hyper-V, with IIS7 running this site, browsed by IE8 on Windows 7 RC, and authored in Office 2007 (2010 if Microsoft would give me the flippin bits!).  The company, not so much.  Risk is good – as long as you can mitigate it properly.  I can manage my risk, as it’s not the end of the world is something here crashes.  I don’t lose an audience.  If the company can’t market to it’s customers because the tools in use are too new, it will lose audience.  Period.  And that means lost revenue.

Maybe we can convince the exec’s in Phase II.