Your site is broken (and you don’t even know it..)

I’m amazed at the number of web sites that I’m coming across these days that flat out don’t work.  I’m talking about being able to read the primary content or sign in, or complete an order.  These are critical activities for web sites to be able to complete and yet they’re completely broken.  And what’s worse – I’m sure the site owners have no idea.

And I’m not talking about edge cases.  I’m talking about launching a browser from my late-model MacBook, pointing it at a site and experiencing complete failures.

But perhaps this needs a little more background..

I’ve been more disappointed with web browsing lately – especially with pages that take forever to load or load overly-obnoxious ads.  I get that ads pay for the internet these days but I’ve never been one to click on an ad- whether it’s an old-school banner ad, a google ad, or a newer-style fly-over in-your-face blocking your content kind of ad.  They’re just something that I ignore/avoid/dismiss.

More recently I took a more aggressive approach by installing ‘ad blockers’ on my browser. I chose Ghostery because of decent ratings and I like their interface; which shows you who’s trying to load what; and allows you to enable trackers on the fly.

So it is with this basic – very popular – blocker installed on my browser that I find that so many sites are not accommodating this.  Now I get it if you’ve got a content site: you need to run the ads to pay the bills and if ad-blockers are on you’re OK with people not being able to access your site.

But what about transactional sites?  There’s almost no excuse for these sites not to work – and I am willing to bet that the Product Owners in charge simply dismiss the missed opportunities to ‘bounces’ or ‘abandoned carts’ without recognizing the problems on their site.

Let me give 2 examples: Tumblr and Patagonia.

Tumblr is a content site, so you could argue that their behaviors are intended, in order to maximize revenue.  But this just isn’t the case.  Their ads show up as inline posts so ad blockers aren’t going to prevent them from appearing.  They have no reason to specifically target ad-blockers an intentionally break their site.  What’s more, the broken action that I’ve run across is in logging in to the dashboard – an action not required by casual browsers.

With ad-blocking turned on, I see that ‘Codexis Radar’ and ‘ScoreCard Research Beacon’ and ‘Google Analytics’ are trying to load.  By default I allow Google Analytics (as well as other analytics packages) but I don’t have all analytics engines allowed, especially since many are used creatively as alternative methods to drive ads.  So with these two trackers blocked, logging in to the Tumblr dashboard breaks.  On each attempt I am simply returned to the same login page with no action taken and no message delivered.

In Patagonia‘s example, they split their site into 2 distinct areas – their shopping area and their informational area.  Unfortunately, that’s as much as I know as long as the ad blocker is on.  Trying to enter either area (through the site’s main navigation) does nothing.  I can see they’re buttons but I can also see that they do nothing.  In this case, Patagonia is running Omniture, Moneytate, and RichRelevance, one of which is tracking/powering at least parts of their navigation.

As a Product Manager, I fully appreciate the value and necessity of good analytics tracking to maintain and improve products but allowing 3rd party trackers to interfere with primary site functions seems crazy to me.  Especially when you’re counting on those same trackers to tell you about such behaviors as successful logins or ‘clicking on the shop button.’  You’ve got to think about allowing the site to function even if one of the trackers doesn’t load.  Yes they all promise 99.9999999999% uptime but what are they really providing and can you even tell?

In the end, ad blocking is a bit of a hack, I get it.  And it’s always going to be the minority of customers who choose to seek these things out.  But once you get a taste of how much more responsive web sites are without all of the cruft it’s hard to go back.

We’re obviously going through big changes on the web with the ‘appification’ of the system where all of this becomes moot anyway.  But who knows what’s in the future and however it presents itself, as site owners you’ve got to make sure you’re not allowing a broken experience to be out there for your (potential) customers and you can’t allow yourself to be blindsided by tools over which you have little control.  In most cases, you’ve got to make sure that the primary functions of your site remain available to the broadest reach possible.

what poor returns!

I am a long-time user of Quicken software to track my accounts.  As a former employee of Intuit, I have always been a fan of their mission to simplify people’s financial lives.  But this mission hasn’t always translated into good product experiences.

So a couple of years ago I gave Mint a try and was very happy with their service.  It was (and still is) free and it offers a good view into the state of your accounts.

At least, it used to.

For some reason, investments have always been difficult to track. To my knowledge, there are no good tools that are reasonably priced that allow you to track the performance of your investments.  The biggest problem seems to be separating out initial investments from dividend or other returns.  Inevitably these get counted as additional purchases instead of reinvestments.  Mint suffered from the same algorithmic problems but I was willing to live with them.

But now it’s gotten so much worse.  I’m not sure if Mint is not being well tended to by it’s new parent company or if this is just some strange anomaly with my account .. Here’s a snapshot of my latest investment report from Mint

To me, the initially alarming aspect was the RED chart.  This is indicating by how much my investments are underperforming against the S&P 500.  This chart showing that I’ve had essentially zero growth in the last 6 months.  That’s disappointing (especially since I have a rather large portion of my accounts in an S&P 500 index fund.  It’s also not accurate.  A manual calculation shows that I’m doing relatively well against said index.

But perhaps worse than not reporting on the returns of my investments correctly, there’s something else horribly wrong with this report.  Horribly wrong.  (Unfortunately, for me).  And that would be, the value of my investments.  When I look at my account balances (as reported in Mint), my actual investment balance is somewhere oh .. let’s just say, WELL South of the number that is reported in this snapshot.  Where the hell did this number come from?  If only Mint operated as a bank and I could make a hasty withdraw..

Is Google sliding downhill?

There’s been a lot of discussion lately on the tech blogs about Google:

Their forays into social have been criticized, The quality of Android over iOS is questioned, the future of the Chrome OS is uncertain, their Google TV platform seems crippled by old-world media.. Perhaps most disturbing, they’re being called the new Microsoft <gasp>.

I am a stockholder, a fan of many of their services like Google Voice, Gmail, and an owner of an Android phone so in many ways I think Google is a great company.

But where I am concerned personally, and the criticism that I’ve seen that I think is most alarming is in their search results.

Search is still the core of Google’s business (well, to be fair, advertising is the core of their business.. search is the most used interface that exposes customers to their ads) and I’ve seen some alarming changes to the quality of the search results that Google provides.

Some of the criticism is around Google surfacing their own content and services higher on search results pages.  This does not bother me as often that content is valuable.  Other criticism, that does resonate with me, is about the useless content-farm sites that fill the Google results.

I experienced this heavily just recently while working on my car stereo install.  Throughout the process: of selecting a stereo, determining the compatibility with my phone and researching installation issues I was plagued with horrible, useless search results.  What appeared at first to be a highly relevant result would end up being (upon clicking through to the site) a useless page with scraped content that was buried somewhere on the page with no relevance.

This has happened to me on several occasions lately and seems relatively new to Google.

After a while, bad results become easy to spot: many of them come from overly generic domains and many times the same preview content is displayed for multiple results.

These highest-ranked search results render the entire search useless.  Navigating through page after page of these useless content sites make it impossible to find the quality, relevant results.

Whether Google will be able to break into social, whether they are able to compete with Apple, whether they are able to fend off Microsoft are all good questions.  If they can’t maintain their search product it’s hard to imagine them succeeding.

Lessons learned from a car radio install

A few months ago I decided to upgrade the radio in my car, to make my now 10 year old vehicle a little more interesting to drive. Since I hope to have this car for another 10 years, the ~$500 investment made sense to me.

I started out on Crutchfield, where I last bought a car radio back in 1989 (from their printed catalog, natch). The experience was very similar – pick out a radio, check the compatibility and then place the order. The web made the experience a little easier, but only just.

Since I’ve got the space in my dash, I opted for a double-height, touchscreen unit.  The first learning: Car radios have standardized sizes, either single- or double-height.  This was not the case back in 1989 when there were still slight variations in sizes.

So the car radio industry has learned in the value of standardization.  Or so it appears at first blush.  When you go to plug that radio in, you’ll soon enough learn the harsh reality that the wiring harnesses are different from vehicle to vehicle.  This is just unacceptable these days.  All radios have the same connections – speakers, antenna, power, possibly some steering wheel controls – and the interface for all of these should be universal.  But this is where Cruthfield shines.  They offer (free of charge) connector units with clear instructions that make it easy to connect the right wires to the right places.

The second learning: Customer service pays.  I knew enough about wiring up a car radio to know that I couldn’t just buy the radio from Amazon and save ~$50.  I knew that by paying that extra amount I would have access to Crutchfield’s customer service.  Throughout the install I had to contact customer service 3 times: once because I ordered the wrong part (replacement shipped free of charge); once because of difficulty with the steering wheel controls (replacement part shipped free of charge); and another call to the steering wheel interface company to validate my thinking and wiring (thinking was spot on, wiring unfortunately, not).  There is still an absolute value to these services – there are times when I know what I’m doing and I only want to pay the cheapest price and there are times when I don’t when I am willing to pay for some additional services.

Companies today need to understand who they want to be: The low-cost, no service provider or the full-service, higher-price provider.  Falling somewhere in between is following a path to failure.  Pricing information is too readily available to consumers and if you charge more without providing additional service, you will be ratted out.

With the unit fully installed and working, the third lesson is bad user interface makes for a bad experience.  While I like the features that the new radio provides (bluetooth, navigation, ipod integration, etc.,) the interface is really clunky.  The screen is not pleasant to look at, the buttons are not in consistent places, and key functions are not readily available in the default screens.  Too many gadgets today are plagued by horrible interfaces.  With a consolidation in capabilities, the best way to make your product stand out is through an excellent interface (hello.. Heard of  Apple?)

The Fourth lesson?  Allow configuration and customization.  With such a bad interface, I wish there were more option settings where I could set up the screens the way I want.  This is something Apple doesn’t really do, as they believe (often correctly) that their implementation is best for most users and therefore has no need for customization.  Even in Apple’s case, with their great designs, individuals will always appreciate being able to put on their own personal touch.  Non Apple products?  Don’t even consider that your interface is the best with no need for customization/modification.

Finally, the fifth lesson: Apps!  In the iPhone/Android world, apps rule: Your devices (and it doesn’t matter what it is: fridge, car stereo, television) needs app integration.  All devices benefit when you open up the capabilities to inventive developers.  I’d love to be able to install apps (the obvious ones like Pandora, etc.,) to my car stereo but there are other possibilities as well: points of interest are another obvious choice but what other capabilities could be thought of?

why don’t digital cameras have internet connectivity?

I usually have a point and shoot camera with me – or at least, I used to.  In the past year I’ve stopped carrying it around, and instead I’ve just relied on my cameraphone.

What’s surprised me though, is the reason.

It’s not that it’s a burden to carry around a single-utility device.  Yes, it’s great that my phone now checks my email, my bank statements, my friends’ updates .. as well as taking pictures and making phone calls.  And yes, a point and shoot camera does none of those aside from snapping photos.

The reason that I no longer use my point and shoot camera is that it doesn’t connect to the internet.

I love the instantaneous posting that cameraphones enable: quickly posting a photo from a vacation or a get together with friends.

So why then haven’t camera companies (yes, you Nikon, Canon, et. al.) embedded wifi capabilities into their cameras?  There are still plenty of times when the cameraphone just won’t do: low lighting, zooming, and the like.  And people still (at least for the time being) do bring along cameras for special occasions – vacations, parties, etc.,

But for how much longer will this last?  How long can you expect the general public to take the camera home, download the images to your computer and then upload them online?

Yes, there are a few models available – but it represents maybe as much as 5% of the cameras out there?  Meanwhile you’d be hard pressed to find a cell phone without a camera..

On my recent trip to Greece, on a few occasions, I found myself putting the camera away and pulling out my cell phone for the sole purpose of.. capturing a photo – how insane is that?  Just because I wanted to share the picture quickly.

So I’m adding this to my wishlist for my next camera.  I want the Nikon D700 replacement to be wifi enabled.  I also want the next iteration of the high-ISO micro 4/3rds camera to be wifi enabled too.

Come on guys, if you want to stay relevant, you need to move a little faster.