Monday, February 21, 2011

Book Review – Conversion Optimization

February 21, 2011 Posted by Jason Irwin , No comments

Disclosure: I received a review copy of Conversion Optimization from O’Reilly.

Conversion Optimization

I didn’t really have any set expectations when reading this title. As a professional developer I continually strive to fill gaps in my knowledge and conversion optimization was (read: is no longer) something I didn’t know much if anything about. At less than 300 pages the book is a pretty quick read, but is packed full of useful information, lessons learned from real world conversion optimization and plenty of case studies. I read the book over the course of a weekend and highly recommend it for anyone involved in ecommerce or lead generation websites – from developers and designers all the way to marketing and business folk. There is a health balance of descriptive and prescriptive guidance and I feel like I learned a lot while thoroughly enjoying the read.

Overview

As the name suggests, Conversion Optimization by Khalid Saleh, Ayat Shukairy deals specifically with converting site visits into revenue – through sales/leads/etc. Essentially organizations spend fortunes on SEO and online advertising to drive people to their site, without giving enough thought to what to do when the visitors actually arrive.

The book is based on an 8 principle (trademarked) Conversion Framework which walks the reader from initial market analysis and persona setup through engaging customers. I found the early differentiation of macro and micro conversions to be extremely insightful, where getting the user to purchase something (taking an ecommerce example) is the macro level and every page along the way must provide a micro conversion to enable said macro conversion. Simple, yes, but only after it has been articulated…

Each step along the way is extremely detailed with a combination of qualitative and quantitative data backing up claims made. The authors appear to be experts in their fields and illustrate their points using real world examples that they worked on. The book is littered with interesting and useful case studies.

The book is both descriptive and prescriptive, explaining in detail what conversion optimization is, pinpointing why it is ignored by so many, defining a framework for optimization and illustrating how to implement this framework.

I read this book from cover to cover in about 3 days. It weighs in at less than 300 pages but the reading is somewhat fluid as the authors jump from business forecasting to the psychology of users and onwards to a multitude of topics with the greatest of ease. I was pretty riveted throughout and barely put the book down once I had started reading.

This is an excellent title which (if anyone from O’Reilly is listening) would greatly benefit from being turned into a Master Class video series! It isn’t a technical title, and should be accessible and useful to anyone from business stakeholders, to marketing fold and all the way down to us developers and designers. This was a great read that I strongly suggest for anyone interested in deriving revenue from their website – specifically those spending a fortune on ADs and SEO wondering why customers are not buying their product.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Review - Scott & Neil's Designing Web Interfaces Master Class

February 17, 2011 Posted by Jason Irwin No comments
Scott & Neil's Designing Web Interfaces Master Class

Summary

As a developer I tend to (subconsciously) consider web interface design as a soft art that takes a back seat to the science of computer programming. I’ve long needed to brush up on my design skills and was excited to review O’Reilly’s series - Scott & Neil's Designing Web Interfaces Master Class. I was hopeful of an in-depth overview of web interface design with plenty of battle-hardened nuggets of wisdom. The presenters were sufficiently credentialed to offer such nuggets of wisdom and to me, the best part of this course was Bill Scott’s insight into designs from his time at Yahoo! and especially his current company Netflix extremely interesting. While I enjoyed this course and gained some knowledge in the process, I’m not sure that I – a UX rookie – learned enough for this series to live up to its master class title. I certainly don’t feel like I gained mastery of the subject matter in the process. Pedantic, I know, but those were my expectations based on the title and they weren’t really met by the content. The series isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination – it just didn’t fully live up to my expectations.

Overview

As with the previous O’Reilly video series I reviewed, the series production was of extremely high quality with superb audio and video providing an immersive experience. The presenters were both extremely competent, knowledgeable and well-spoken and had plenty of relevant experience.

A minor annoyance with the content is that, when demonstrating key layout points, the presenters used screenshots and/or videos. While I’m sure that logging into the many websites utilized as examples in the series would have constituted a logistical (and personal privacy) nightmare, the use of static screenshots and video recordings didn’t really work. There were a number of awkward moments throughout the series where the presenter wished to illustrate a point and resorted to rewinding video or, worse still, pointing at a static screenshot and asking the viewer to use their imagination.

The course got off to a pretty slow start. The longest video (weighing in at almost 1.5 hours) introduces a myriad of possible screen layouts with suggestions as to which layout should be used when. Unfortunately the video is long winded and pretty subjective – what I loved about the Croll & Power’s Communylitics Master Class video series was that everything was backed up with statistics and/or studies. When reviewing different layout options I would have loved to see some similar statistics applied – specifically detailing why users act the way they act with comparisons of layouts based on quantitative data and detailing where users spend their time on websites, etc. etc.

Instead, the screen layout and user control videos felt more like best of the web affairs with the presenter spending a substantial amount of time showing off really nice websites, grouped by layout/control types. While there was nothing wrong with these videos (I would love O’Reilly to make and distribute a poster with all of the included layout types and screenshots) the same impact could have been achieved in a lot less time. Also, knowing that combined these accounted for almost 50% of the series, I was a little disheartened having finished watching the titles and feeling that I really hadn’t learned all that much.

As the series progressed a bunch of patterns and anti-patterns were discussed. The series really came into its own with Bill providing many insights into designs at Yahoo! and Netflix and I found it refreshing not only to hear about (and see) real life experiences of good and bad design decisions but to gain insight into the world of prominent and relevant web giants – this is something you don’t often get a chance to see!

All in all I found the series to be useful without fully living up to expectations – had this been advertised as an introduction or even a mid-level course then I think the title was acceptable, but as a master class the information was not prescriptive enough. If I, as a developer with little design experience, didn’t gain much knowledge from the title, I can’t imagine that a designer would gain anything at all. I would recommend this series as I thought it was both enjoyable and a worthwhile watch – but I would adjust my expectations a little before watching…

Friday, February 11, 2011

Book Review - Event Processing in Action

February 11, 2011 Posted by Jason Irwin , 2 comments

Disclosure: I received a review copy of Event Processing in Action from Manning.

I started this reviewing kick a little while back with Manning’s Continuous Integration title and, enjoying the experience, decided to continue with additional reviews for the foreseeable future. To get the most out of the experience I’ve decided that wherever possible I should review titles that do not directly relate to the things I work on as part of my day job in order to broaden my horizons a little. The most recent title in my repertoire is Manning’s Event Processing in Action by Opher Etzion and Peter Niblett.

Event-Processing-in-Action

Background

Let me start by saying that, other than a rudimentary understanding of the base concepts, I began reading the title with a sum-total of zero knowledge of formalized event processing. I currently work in the healthcare industry and can see many practical applications of such a formal approach – from medical equipment monitoring patient health to reception of third party lab results, medication orders etc. it seems that a lot of what we do is essentially event processing – but we don’t always treat it as such.

My Expectations

  • Define the basics
  • Explain why event processing would be beneficial to me
  • Provide advice based on real world experience

The Book

In short this book is a substantial body of effort, extremely well written and detail-oriented. I wouldn’t call it enjoyable reading per se - it is not a particularly sexy topic to begin with – but definitely a worthwhile read.

Event Processing in Action, as expected, starts out with an introduction to the world of event processing – providing detailed definitions of key terms as well as examples of computerized event processing. Event processing applications are then categorized and, most importantly, the authors explain when and why event processing should be used. This is pretty much exactly what I was looking for in an introduction. Moreover, everything was defined with extreme clarity and I was left with very few, if any, questions unanswered.

The bulk of the book deals with the standard building blocks that constitute event processing systems – an attempt to abstract away from a particular language or system and explain the constituent parts of such a system in a generic manner. If I had one reservation about the book it is that it is (mostly) language agnostic – I like to get my hands dirty and would loved to have seen at least a few chapters dealing with the setup and application of a real world system using a real world language – after reading the book I feel pretty well briefed in theory but not so much in real world application. As with the introductory material, the building block chapters go into great detail, discussing event types, consumers, producers, filters, etc. etc.

My favorite section in the book dealt with the pragmatics behind the implementation of an event processing system including engineering and implementation considerations – specifically looking at non functional properties such as security, performance and availability. While this section was more descriptive than prescriptive it was refreshing to read and provided some interesting areas of discussion if/when my organization embarks upon an event processing solution.

Summary

All-in-all this was an interesting and detailed book definitely worth reading. It hit all 3 of my expectations and I feel informed enough to implement and event processing system in my organization. Moreover, the book changed my mentality in terms of how such systems are architected – I think in most organizations there are numerous candidates for event processing systems that were structured in a less natural and less efficient manner. By reading this title, perhaps we can avoid some of the same mistakes the future – or at least have enough information at hand to make appropriate decisions.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Rise and Fall of my Notion Ink Adam

February 04, 2011 Posted by Jason Irwin 16 comments

Today I’ll take a break from the world of programming to discuss my purchase, use, and immediate sale of the Notion Ink Adam – the latest pretender to the iPad throne. I’ve been waiting for this device since CES 2010 and, after a number of hiccups, it is finally here. If you’re looking for something with a few more curly braces, please come back tomorrow. Otherwise read on for my early opinions.

Introduction

Before I get started with the device I’m going to give my two cents on the company and the preorder process. If you don’t want to read this (or if you feel like starting a flame war which I really don’t want to get into) feel free to skip the next two sections. My goal isn’t to defame Notion Ink in any way. You wouldn’t marry someone without meeting the in-laws. The manufacturer is to the in-laws as the gadget is to the bride…if you stand under me…

The Company

Let me start by saying that I am impressed by what Notion Ink has achieved. For a small startup to achieve something of this magnitude is rare and impressive in equal doses, and I have to applaud anyone with the audacity to attempt to compete at this level. What I do not applaud is the arrogance the company has shown in ignoring its user-base. Time and again they have failed to release information, failed to answer questions, failed to provide updates regarding order timelines and shipping estimates and really, failed to be objective about their product. Only good news ever seems to make the cut, questions are answered arbitrarily (i.e. only questions with a happy answer are acknowledged) and the language used seems more indicative of a group of school kids at play than a large company. By all accounts the organization does not consider itself bound by the same rules as large multi-nationals, often spouting the argument that the Notion Ink Adam is not just a product – it is a dream coming to fruition - as if it transcends the needs of a regular device because of what it iconizes. Trying to get a straight answer to a legitimate question is a lesson in futility and, oddly, NI has built a small army of die-hard followers, seemingly without the benefit of critical reasoning (but with a healthy dose of naivety), who are willing to battle any genuine concern or criticism, towing the same bizarre party political line. I get particularly nervous when people refuse to hold their representatives accountable as is the case here. Squeaky bum time, so to speak…

The Ordering Process

Oh, the ordering process... I can say, without hesitation, that ordering the ADAM was the singular worst retail experience I have ever had. Period. I’m always wary of pre-sales treatment that I receive, because I know that once a company has my money, they will never have the same motivation to treat me well again. In short, pre-sale time is as good as it gets. If this is the best treatment I can hope for then I fear what is to come (for those who stay onboard). The ordering process was plagued by delays, expectations that were set but not met, a lack of any tangible information regarding the device (renders do not suffice), servers crashing, unstated charges ($50 shipping. Not unreasonable, but should have been made known), lack of any proactive communication and credit card issues (for many, not me). I, like many, stayed up all night waiting for the unveiling of the preorder page, then waiting for the email with my preorder link, then waiting for the preorder time to roll around, then waiting for hours after the preorder time rolled around while the preorder page still suggested I come back at the original (long since passed) preorder time, then waiting patiently, refreshing in the hope that Notion Ink’s server would come online (or at least allow me get to the page necessary) so that I could order a tablet which, in hindsight, I did not know enough about. All the frustration, and all of the negativity I felt towards NI could have been belayed with a simple email or blog post by the company, explaining the situation to their users. Unfortunately, Notion Ink does not work that way..

Why I bought the Device

So, rant over (for now). You’re probably wondering why I bought the damn thing. Well, I was having second thoughts about the Adam even before clicking the order button. Notion Ink had missed all of their pre-order deadlines, their site was going up and down like a yoyo and I still had seen nothing of the device outside of an early CES2010 demo and more recent screen renderings. The fact is, I had waited a year for this device. A year of reading blog posts and blog comments and most importantly a year of anticipating. I had seen demos of this device before the first iPad was released and had emotionally bought into the product way back then. Over a year later I could have chosen to wait for the next big thing – but chances were that was a few months away – and frankly I had come too far to turn back. So, accepting the risk, I handed over my credit card information. While I feared the worst, I accepted responsibility for the device’s flaws, because I am an early adopter and the cutting edge tends to be pretty sharp.

The Build Up

To their credit, when the device became available, NI shipped their first round via air and the turnaround time from China to the US was 3-4 business days (with a weekend lodged in the middle). Shortly afterwards, issues began to surface on forums regarding bricked devices due to an over-the-air update, buggy software due to the lack of the over-the-air-update (after it was pulled), screen issues, bleeding colors, etc. etc. This was the last thing I wanted to hear but, to be fair, I have no idea how many Adams were shipped in the first round and therefore no idea of the percentage of people actually had issues. To clarify, rumors of bricked devices were misleading – a bricked device is one beyond repair – Notion Ink provided a new ROM to affected users in very little time and, to my knowledge, they addressed any issues caused by the OTA update. Not only that, but their turnaround time was extremely quick – fixing the issue the same day it was encountered…I was definitely apprehensive based on early feedback from other customers, but did my best to remain unbiased in the interim.

The Screen – PixelQI

I think the PixelQI screen (couple with the tegra processor) are what drew me to this device. Unfortunately, I was greatly disappointed by how it looked. I had realistic expectations – this was never going to look like a kindle – but the PixelQI mode definitely didn’t live up to expectations. For starters, it was impossible to read anything indoors – one needs a LOT of light for the text to be legible and, even when it is, the screen reminded me of a giant CASIO calculator. The contrast between text and background was not enough to make the text prominent and I ended up using it a handful of times and then giving up on it. My hope was that this would be useful indoors as a low-power alternative to full lcd mode. But, with the lights on in my apartments, I strained attempting to make out the text on the screen. Unfortunately, the tradeoff of PixelQI is that in LCD mode the screen is not as vibrant as a regular screen appearing a little washed out. In the end there was no benefit to outweigh this massive negative and I ended up disappointed…I’d like to see some other PixelQI examples because I’m not sure if this issue was caused by Notion Ink’s implementation or if my expectations were too high. Regardless, it is not the eBook reading experience I had longed for…

The Hardware – General

The Notion Ink seemed sturdy enough to me, but my wife (comparing it to an iPad) thought it looked and felt cheap – perhaps the difference being Notion Ink’s plastic construction. It felt similar in weight to the iPad and felt pretty good to hold. What I detested, and it is partially my fault for not reading the specs more closely and partially Notion Ink’s for showing misleading screen renders, is how long and skinny the screen was compare to that on the iPad. Holding the device vertically to read a book, the screen was very tall but very skinny in width and the reading experience felt quite bizarre and not something I would get used to. The sound, as other reviews have mentioned, was pretty good and pretty loud and didn’t have any complaints in that arena. I had intermittent issues watching videos on the device (and read similar complaints from other owners) where sometimes everything would be fine and other times (watching the exact same part of the exact same video) the sound would be delayed. This was particularly frustrating as it is something I’ve grown accustomed to just working and when things go wrong I get a little cranky. The swivel camera is a neat idea, but frankly was a little less sturdy than I would have expected. Frankly speaking I’d be just as happy with a front and rear facing camera – but I do not see any use cases where I will record lectures, etc. Finally, I hooked the device up to a 37” LCD TV in order to test HDMI out – and it failed miserably. Essentially, the video slowed down (like it was being played in slow motion) as if too much processing power was required to play the file. This was reproducible and, frankly, made the feature useless to me.

The Software

Ebook Reader

I was gutted to find out that the ADAM (currently) ships without ANY eBook reader. Clicking an ePub in sniffer indicates that there is no app associated with that file type and there definitely aren’t any applications installed that would prove otherwise. This is a BIG deal to me – reading eBooks will probably be my primary use of the device (which is why I bought the PixelQI version) but is not supported out of the box. To those who suggest using a third party android app: aldiko does not scale well to this form factor and the text looks horrible, making it next to impossible to read anything on there. Kobo looks a little better, but the android version is feature poor (unlike the beautiful iPad version). I haven’t yet found anything to rival iBooks which, to be honest, I never considered an amazing piece of software (it does its job well, but there are few bells and whistles). NI have mentioned content partnerships, and an eBook leaf definitely appears in multiple of their newer videos, but right now there is nothing….

Eden

Notion Ink’s custom Eden interface is one of the nicest aspects of the device – out of the box the interface was ridiculously buggy, to such an extent that I could no longer wait for Notion Ink to fix their over-the-air updates and instead opted to flash the firmware to get the latest and greatest version. Immediately the user interface became far more responsive with a lot fewer crashes and the interface felt a lot more like the widget goodness Android users have grown to love rather than the typical iPad application launcher screen. There were few applications available that had a leaf mode, but the ones that did (sniffer, mail, browser) were pretty nice and made information easily accessible. Oddly, I never cared about the custom UI, but this is one of the device’s nicest features…I’m not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing.

Sniffer

A big annoyance I had with the iPad was the rigmarole necessary to transfer a few files to the device or move said files between applications – I understand the need for sandboxes and safeguards but I always felt way too controlled when using the iPad and that frustrated me…a lot. There are a bunch of file browsers available for Android and Notion Ink’s version, Sniffer, is extremely nice. The launcher itself is (I think) quite pretty and it was a lovely experience to be able to navigate to a folder and open an MP3 or open an ePub without having to do it through a specific application. I also loved Eden’s sniffer leaf where it was possible to browse to and open files straight from my main screen – to move, delete, etc. I just had to launch the main app from the leaf. While I don’t see it happening I’d love to see Notion Ink open sourcing or selling Sniffer to make it available (in an above board manner) on other Android tablets. They definitely have some talented developers and designers on board and I’d love to see what else they are capable of, without necessarily needing an Adam.

Browser

The default browser shows promise but, even with the latest and greatest firmware, was quite buggy. For instance, typing an address into the address bar and hitting enter didn’t do anything at all, and I was constantly forced to close the application and/or do a google search rather than being able to move between sites. This was frustrating enough that I side-loaded Dolphin HD after about 4 uses and never went back. Sadly the browser looked really nice and the tab interface was pretty cool, but it just wasn’t ready for general use…

Mail’d

I love K9, an open source Android mail client. Mail’d is built on top of K9 and supports most if not all (I only connected a gmail account during my time with the device) of the features of K9 while adding some style and fitting the Adam form factor. It is also really good looking – sharing the same style as sniffer – and, complete with its trimmed down leaf mode version, was an enjoyable and functional mail client. Notion Ink

What Is Missing

The android market for one thing. Sure, you can side-load many apps, but the inability to actually buy and download apps from Google felt like a pretty big void. Genesis, Notion Ink’s app store, is set to go live at an undetermined date but I wonder if enough developers will be willing to program for a specific device to enable it to gain traction.

The End

In the end I decided to sell my Notion Ink Adam. After spending so much time researching, discussing and anticipating it was sad to do so – but I knew if I waited until general release I would be unable to find a buyer. There were simply too many issues - physical, software and company related – to ignore and I knew I’d spend the lifetime of the product apologizing for the device. I’m saddened to think what could of happened had Notion Ink not had so many investor problems and this device was launched before the iPad last year. In this case time-to-market is everything and I fear the worst for Notion Ink. They seemingly do not have the necessary infrastructure to treat their customers the way (we high maintenance and technically competent) customers deserve and demand to be treated and I fear their loyal fan base will quickly dwindle if their communication strategy does not soon change for the better. The Notion Ink Adam feels like an unfinished product and, while I hope to see another version competing with the iPad (and other tablets in the future), I fear for the future of the Adam and Notion Ink as a whole. I recently sold my Adam and haven’t really looked back – since I received the Adam there have been no real updates on the Notion Ink site, and had I not upgraded the firmware manually, I’d still be using their bug-riddled V1 software…I wish all those who did (or will) buy an Adam all the best and hope that Notion Ink’s promise of innovation is realized in the future. I, for one, am going to pick up a Xoom when it is released later this month!