November 26, 2002

WSJ Runs Story About Use of Personalization Technologies by TiVo and

Dave Aiello wrote, "Many websites are pointing to a Wall Street Journal article about the personalization technologies in use by and TiVo. This article begins in the middle of the Front Page of the print edition, which means that it's somewhat whimsical. But, I'd like to point out that there's a lot of truth to it."

"For instance, the article talks about how Basil Iwanyk's TiVo thought that he was gay at one point. After he realized this and counterprogrammed it, the TiVo began to think that he was a fan of The Third Reich. At our house, the TiVo fills itself with situation comedies that my wife likes. But this only happens during the professional cycling offseason-- otherwise it's full of reruns of Liege-Bastogne-Liege."

"The article also points out that's use of collaborative filtering technology immediately suggests books similar to the one's you've looked at recently. This can lead to particularly interesting results when you are doing pricing research for used book selling. Amazon often thinks I'm interested in books on co-dependency and wellness issues. People who know me would have to conclude that I have an ulterior motive if I'm looking at books like those."

"The article is interesting and worth reading whether you use these services or not. And if you use them and they have you pegged as someone you are not, you have my sympathies."

August 9, 2002

Webmonkey Argues for Adherence to Web Standards to Keep Costs Down

Over on Webmonkey, Paul Boutin makes a novel argument for designing web pages to Web Standards Project standards: it's a lot cheaper to design sites this way.

Instead of trying to support multiple versions of the same pages, it's much more cost-effective to piggyback on the millions of dollars Microsoft, Netscape, Opera, and others have spent building standards-compliant browsers and just stick to using standards-compliant markup on your site.

Now we've heard everything. It's not that we are against using standardized design. But, these admonitions are mainly aimed at artsy sites who felt the need to use browser-specific features to try to impose almost typographic control over the appearance of a web page. Most web sites like never had separate web pages for Netscape and Microsoft Internet Explorer, so this article doesn't really apply to us.

Our question is: why did so many site managers wait so long to follow this advice? So much of the excesses of 1999, 2000, and 2001 were about redoing the same work. Sites that had two or three versions of the same content employed a lot of people, but were obviously wasting money. Many of them are now gone from the scene. Meanwhile, sites that were designed by sane people are still around, in many cases.

June 19, 2002

Jakob Nielsen Discussed How "Multiple-Location Web Users" Influence Design

About a month ago, Jakob Nielsen published an article on discussing the phenomenon of "multiple-location web users" and how their unique needs should influence the design of web sites. Among other things, sites need to recognize individuals instead of computers. This means that cookies are not a long-term solution for personalization. Sites should also preserve settings across more than one computing device.

What would you think if recognized that you were using their sites from two separate machines? Would that please you, or would it bother you? Interesting question....

May 14, 2002 Publishes Top 10 List for Homepage Usability

Earlier this week Jakob Nielsen published a list of ten ideas to increase the usability of the home page of corporate web sites. This is part of the Alertbox series on his web site, We continue to be very impressed with the advice Nielsen dispenses for free on his site. All of these design tips are excellent ideas.

April 29, 2002

Matthew Thomas on Why Free Software Generally Has Poor Usability

Matthew Thomas neatly summarized the reasons why free software products often have poorly designed user interfaces. He really nails the design issues that stem from the organic nature of Open Source development. He says:

I've been having a discussion with someone from IBM about whether it's ever possible for for Free Software to have a nice human interface.

In theory, I think it is possible. But in practice, the vast majority of open-source projects are also volunteer projects; and it seems that the use of volunteers to drive development inevitably leads the interface design to suck. The reasons are many and varied, and maybe one day I'll turn this into a long and heavily-referenced essay....

April 15, 2002 Publishes Results of Web Usability Study of Children

On, Jakob Nielsen published the results of a web usability study that used children as the subjects. The test included "55 children who varied in age from 6 to 12 (first through fifth graders).... 39 kids in the United States and 16 in Israel, to broaden the international applicability of our recommendations."

Surprisingly, Nielsen found that children used grownup-oriented sites like and Yahoo! more productively than many children's sites. Children seemed to have difficulty with children's web sites because many of them "had complex and convoluted interaction designs that stumped our test users."

The study also suggests that the notion that children can easily comprehend the complexity of any computer systems is a myth. Children apparently get just as frustrated with confusing user interfaces as adults do. But, their perception of the meaning of user interface elements is sometimes different than that of adults.

April 9, 2002

Sony VAIO Software Doesn't Compare Well to Apple's iMac Software

Stephen Maines has written an article about the Sony VAIO MX in Forbes. The VAIO MX is a new PC that theoretically competes with the new Apple iMac. But, the article says, "There's just one problem: It doesn't work particularly well. Instead of elegantly integrated hardware and software, you get a boxful of disparate programs so poorly designed that you end up being the one who has to knit them together."

This matches with our experience with a previous version of the Sony VAIO: other than playing DVDs on the LCD display, a lot of the video and photo editing tools don't play well together. We might still think the VAIO was pretty good, were it not for the fact that we know about the iMac and its great bundled software iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, and iTunes.

January 4, 2002

Making Web Sites Less Useful to Email Address Harvesters

A couple of weblogs have re-published links to a WebTechniques article from August 2001 that describes how to make web sites less useful to email address harvesting programs. These so-called Spambots traverse web sites like search engine robots looking for email addresses. The lists of email addresses produced are then used to send spam to the addresses.

The article focuses on explaining how Spambots work and explaining how to combat Spambots by using mod_rewrite, an optional module for Apache.

This is yet another example of why everyone who is hosting web sites ought to consider using Apache. Tools like mod_rewrite generally come out first for that web server, they are widely used, and therefore they are extremely well-tested and well understood by a large percentage of the community.

Continue reading "Making Web Sites Less Useful to Email Address Harvesters" »

December 21, 2001

Palm Handwriting Recognition Infringes on Xerox Patent reports that Judge Michael Telesca ruled that Palm's Graffiti handwriting recognition system infringes on a Xerox patent. The case now moves to the damages phase of the trial, where fines and/or terms of a license agreement may be imposed.

This case has been underway since 1997, when Palm Computing was a subsidiary of U.S. Robotics, the modem manufacturer later acquired by 3Com. Of course, 3Com later spun Palm off into its own company.

This is also an indication that Xerox will benefit financially from fundimental computing research which took place at the PARC, the Palo Alto Research Center. Xerox PARC also invented the Graphical User Interface, laser printing, and Ethernet.

December 4, 2001

Some Health Care Web Sites Crippled by Bad User Interfaces

IBM DeveloperWorks published an article by Peter Seebach which says that a number of important healthcare-related web sites contain content that is inaccessible to many users because they require plug-ins, contain browser specific code, or require JavaScript to be turned on. This is troubling because more potential users of healthcare web sites are accessing them through devices that are not PCs. Also, some more technical users have legitimate (security) reasons to have JavaScript turned off in their web browsers by default.

It is not surprising that consumer-oriented web sites such as these make stupid presumptions. Many IT departments with customer-facing web sites limit their usability testing to platforms that they think people have in their homes (i.e. AOL or IE, Windows 9x or ME, etc.). Of course, many customers attempt to access these sites from work, where they use exotic operating systems like Windows NT 4.0 and browsers like Netscape Communicator 4.x.

The article is well-written because it returns again and again to the added support cost of poor user interface design. Added costs are the only metric to which some poorly managed insurance and healthcare companies respond. We agree that these problems are endemic in that industry, and more attention needs to be directed at these problems before they will be solved.

November 21, 2001

Should We Implement a Slashcode Web Site History Module?

We are considering adding a module to the right side of the home page of the CTDATA Web Site that will automatically display the headlines from one year ago. This would be a sort of automated On This Date in CTDATA History Module.

We find that sites that have run a content management system for more than a year often refer to stories from a year or two years ago, see the Thanksgiving retrospective on Scripting News. However, we are not familiar with any Web Site which does this automatically.

If you have an opinion, pro or con, please vote in the poll that we've posted. Your comments are also welcome, either attached to this story or to the poll.

August 30, 2001

MIT Professor Michael Dertouzos Dies at 64

On Wednesday, Scripting News pointed out that MIT Professor Michael Dertouzos passed away earlier this week at the age of 64. He was the author of a number of books and papers that advocated user interface improvements to make technology more accessible to non-technical audiences. He was also director of the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science, an extremely important technical resource and the US home of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

In a Reuters news article, Tim Berners-Lee, developer of HTML, said that Dr. Dertouzos was the key person in the establishment of the W3C. Berners-Lee said, "He picked up the idea (of forming the World Wide Web Consortium) and put it together. Only someone with this stature could have pulled it off."

August 15, 2001

Web Techniques Gives Practical Advice on User Registration Systems

WebTechniques magazine continues to publish highly relevant articles on user interface design. The latest is an article by Janice Crotty Fraser, an ex-Netscape employee who now works for Critical Path. In it, she says, "My task was to redesign... {the Netscape} registration system; the goal was a short, consistent, usable interface within three weeks. But because the changes that I had specified had a huge impact on the system engineering and our marketing partners, it took more than six months of battles to get the new system slated for implementation."

Although a discussion of the incredible inertia within Netscape that the article hints at would be interesting in itself, Fraser never revisits it. Instead, she discusses practical techniques like storyboarding the existing registration process (instead of merely flowcharting it), eliminating site-wide navigation from the registration pages, and using visual groupings to make the forms easier for users to understand at a glance.

We built an online registration system for ourselves in 1999. So, we know how hard it is to build in ease-of-use for all types of potential users. This article covers many of the stumbling blocks that we solved by trial and error.

June 12, 2001

Interactive Week Column Illustrates Problems with Smart Tags

Last week, we mentioned the issues associated with Microsoft's possible implementation of Smart Tags within the next release of Internet Explorer. Yesterday, Connie Guglielmo of Interactive Week editorialized on the subject. Her illustration of what Smart Tags might add to a web page critical of Microsoft is enlightening. As Dave Winer said in response, "There's hardly anything to add. It perfectly illustrates what free journalism would
be like when annotated by a big company with the power to insert its point of
view into every conversation."

June 7, 2001

Mossberg Warns of Insidious New Feature in IE Version to Ship with Windows XP

Walter S. Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal does not like the Smart Tags feature of the new version of Microsoft Internet Explorer that is expected to ship with Windows XP in October. In his Personal Technology Column published today, he rebukes Microsoft for what amounts to editing other people's Web Sites without permission:

Microsoft's Internet Explorer Smart Tags are something new and dangerous.
They mean that the company that controls the Web browser is using that
power to actually alter others' Web sites to its own advantage. Microsoft
has a perfect right to sell services. But by using its dominant software to do
so, it will be tilting the playing field and threatening editorial integrity.

CTDATA opposes this technology, as Mossberg has described it. We recommend that everyone in the Web Publishing industry read this column and decide for themselves if this is an additional threat to the independence and economic viability of Web Sites that are not affilated with Microsoft.

June 1, 2001

Article Neatly Debunks Gee-Wiz Technical Innovations

Alan Cooper of Cooper Interaction Design published an article that neatly demonstrates the difference between useful and useless technical innovation. The article is entitled Goal-Directed Innovation, a term that his company has trademarked.

Cooper cites a television ad where a young man attempts to pick up an attractive woman at a party by sending her a flirty message to her mobile phone via the Short Message Service. He points out the implausibility of the entire scene, and characterizes it as an indication of counterproductive use of technology.

To contrast this, he points to the kind of customer-centric services that offers. He concludes that the individual technical services used to communicate with the customer are not nearly as significant as the overall effect that their customer-service orientation achieves in the mind of a regular Amazon customer.

Cooper makes another valuable point when he says, "I've heard experts say that to make your Web site successful, it should look and act like Amazon's Web site. That is far from the truth. To be successful, your company should behave like Amazon behaves, giving value to your customer at every step of the relationship, and using whatever tools are appropriate...."

February 2, 2001

Is Yahoo's Integration of eGroups Finished?

eGroups users have probably noticed by now that Yahoo! has acquired the company, and it is now called Yahoo! Groups. This is probably a win-win situation for the two of them. But, a question that lingers now that the integration appears to be underway is, have they finished yet?

Here are a few reasons why we ask the question:

At least two of the three observations listed above are easily fixed. It's also not clear if there is any demand for consolidation of Yahoo! Clubs and Yahoo! Groups. But, it strikes us as strange that the integration of eGroups has been done in a way that seems unfinished. This is not the way Yahoo! typically does business, in our opinion.

December 21, 2000

Slashcode Can (and Should) Learn from Scoop

Since we began enhancing Slash 0.3, CTDATA has looked to a variety of sources for new feature ideas. Of course, our primary source of ideas has been the subsequent versions of Slashcode itself. However, recently, we have been looking at other Weblog toolkits primarily to ensure that we are not developing tunnel vision.

We find Scoop, the code framework that was developed for Kuro5hin, very interesting. While we are not sold on using moderation techniques to manage a Slash-like Site's submission queue, there are a number of interesting features that are designed to encourage more user participation.

Continue reading "Slashcode Can (and Should) Learn from Scoop" »

December 6, 2000 Suggests a Balance Between Security and Usability

Jakob Nielsen wrote an excellent piece called Security & Human Factors for his Alertbox series. In it he points out many of the obvious problems with password-based security systems in general, and the security provisions imposed by corporate IT departments in order to minimize the risk of password misappropriation in particular.

Things like minimum password length, denial of password reuse, and short password lifetimes almost guarantee increased technical support costs due to end-user confusion.

CTDATA increased security on many of our systems last year, and our experience is that the increase in support costs has greatly exceeded the increase in overall system security. If we had to do it over again, we would have sought a different solution.

Continue reading " Suggests a Balance Between Security and Usability" »

September 20, 2000

CueCat Could be the Worst PC Accessory in History

What if you paid for a subscription to a magazine, and its publisher gave you a bar code scanner so that its advertisers could better determine the effectiveness of their ads? Would agree to use the scanner without being paid to do so?

Apparently, the publishers of Forbes, Wired, and several other magazines think that you will. It's called CueCat and we cannot think of a device that is a greater insult to the intelligence of a magazine subscriber.

We gleefully note the following articles that concur with us on this: Scott Rosenberg's September 15th article on Salon, this Slashdot article documenting CueCat's attempt to prohibit use of its scanner with Linux, and Jakob Nielsen's current Spotlighted Link on

Continue reading "CueCat Could be the Worst PC Accessory in History" »

August 25, 2000 Changes its User Interface

It looks like has rationalized the number of index tabs appearing in the header of their home page. Up until recently, they had placed an index tab at the top of their home page for each major section of their on-line store. A review of the Google Cache page for's home page indicates that it had 15 index tabs.

Now, the Amazon home page has a total of two index tabs, "Welcome" and "Directory". A additional tab is displayed when you drill down into a store (their term for a major section of their site). In addition, they have added a set of buttons labeled "Today's featured stores" in the area that used to contain index tabs.

Continue reading " Changes its User Interface" »

August 8, 2000

Usability Experts are from Mars, Graphic Artists from Venus

Curt Cloninger does an excellent job of articulating the differences between the two major approaches to Web Design in his article on A List Apart. Although we are definitely from the usability side of the house, we know an accurate portrayal of the Web Site as graphic art piece viewpoint when we see one.

CTDATA feels that there needs to be more of a balance between the two approaches. For instance, Web Sites that are primarily used by people sitting at desks should not look best under Lynx. What bothers us and other fans of things like consistant site structure, obvious navigation, and information architecture is that the artists tend to take the approach that if you don't like Flash, DHTML, Javascript, and large graphic images you are not really a professional Web Site designer. Sorry, but them's fightin' words.

August 7, 2000

Jakob Nielsen Cites Lower Usability as Reason for Reduced Affiliate Sales

Jakob Nielsen's latest Alertbox explains why Doc Searls, a popular figure in the Linux movement, is no longer able to generate any sell-through for books he recommends on his Weblog. The reason Jakob cites is the poor usability of Doc Searls' affiliate partner Wordsworth, relative to his previous partner,

The main point of Jakob's analysis, a comparative deconstruction of Wordsworth, is excellent and worth reading just from an e-commerce UI design perspective.

Doc Searls has already responded on his Weblog, explaining that he thinks the problem is Wordsworth's pricing, which is generally higher than Amazon's. We, however, think that the root problem is the politics of the OpenSource movement.

Continue reading "Jakob Nielsen Cites Lower Usability as Reason for Reduced Affiliate Sales" »

August 3, 2000

Seeking Design Ideas for a Photo Extension to Slashcode

CTDATA and some of the CTDATA Network Sites (particularly have amassed hundreds of digital photos over the past 18 months. We would like to manage these photos under our modified Slashcode system. Would you care to make suggestions as to how the user interface should look?

One idea that was stumbled upon, totally by coincidence, is the 16photos Web Site. This is an example of one of its pages. What is interesting about this page is the fact that it displays several photos at once, it's clean, and fast loading. We might want to use a layout like this as a sort of index page from which you could drill down to individual pages that provide more information about a specific photo.

Continue reading "Seeking Design Ideas for a Photo Extension to Slashcode" »

July 25, 2000

Jakob Nielsen on the End of Web Design

Some Weblogs have already weighed in on Jakob Nielsen's latest column at called End of Web Design. Many of the comments that have been written so far, such as this analysis in Stating the Obvious, have been critical of this piece.

Our view is that he came close to nailing the key success factors for site evolution at this point in the development of the Web. What Nielsen is saying is that the focus for Site designers and maintainers will be on a lightweight page design that allows for high fidelity reproduction of key page information through two new mediums: the "mobile internet" that others have refered to as the wireless web, and XML-based content syndication.

To the extent that this means a renewed emphasis on information (euphemistically known as content) over form, and a movement away from the design techniques that Razorfish exemplifies (DHTML and Javascript in your company's press releases), we whole heartedly agree.

Continue reading "Jakob Nielsen on the End of Web Design" »

July 22, 2000

What is the User Interface Section of

User Interface refers to the functional aspects of the appearance of a piece of technology. For instance, the user interface of a car is the steering wheel, accelerator, brake, and other objects that the driver uses to control the car or entertain its passengers.

CTDATA's interest in user interface design mainly concerns the appearance and functionality of Web Sites on the Internet or a corporate Intranet. Our efforts are focused on improving the visitor's experience at a Web Site by enhancing the intuitiveness of navigational and transactional controls. This is a fancy way of saying that we want to:

  • help users figure out how to get there from here, and
  • help them decide what to do once they arrive where they want to be.

We are also interested in designing Web Sites that allow people to manage the content of their Web Sites without having to have programming or graphic design experiences. This is why we are so interested in Content Management systems. It's our intention to use this section of the Web Site to discuss and document user interface design techniques.