19 December 2006

What friggin' IT people shortage?!

Hot in the news today is how Canberra are looking for outside help in getting skilled workers to the city:
The ACT Government has begun linking Canberra employers with job seekers in the United Kingdom and Ireland to ease the city's skills shortage. The move is part of the Live in Canberra campaign.
What friggin' skills shortage? I've been urgently looking for a job for over a month, and I've got absolutely nothing in this city so far. Zilch. Nada. And no, it's not that I haven't got skills (in fact, I've got two job offers from overseas [one of them finalised; we're currently working out figures to see if we can afford it], and a couple of prospects in Sydney), it's that I'm not one of those who's sold their soul to J2EE, best-practices, and PRINCE2 which plague the government sector, nor am I an Australian citizen which seems to be a prequisite there, although I'm pressed to understand how workers imported from UK and Ireland would go better in that regard.

Notice that this is part of the "Live in Canberra" campaign which I'm pretty sure doesn't include information about them closing 39 schools this and next year, so if you've got kids, living in Canberra is a bit of a challenge these days, to put it mildly. The ACT local government is really poorly run, nobody here likes them. heck, people are even looking to liberal government, because, if Labour can only measure things in dollars and cents, we might as well go with those who's got a good track record in that departement to do it. (In the past, Labour actually had values, but Jon Stanhopeless' government is prioritizing a 8 million dollar dragway and a 6 million dollar in a friggin' drought area over keeping local schools and communities. Go figure.)

Can you tell I'm upset?

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11 December 2006

When small and neat becomes big and rough

I use the excelent Bloglines.com web-based news aggregator, and recently I noticed a note of help on their frontpage, however you could only help if you lived in San-Franscisco (I assume for usability testing) and if you accepted money for your time, so that ruled me out on a large scale, but because I've been using it for such a long time, love it and can't live without it and because I have many really good ideas (unbashfully, of course :) on how to turn it (with simple means) into the most awsome KM tool, I wrote them an email anyways asking them how I could help otherwise ;
I'm not living in the Bay Area (or the US, for that matter), nor am I after your money :), but I'd love to be part of the process of making Bloglines better, so if there is a way, please let me know. I'm sure you've already got on your todo list things like tagging, content evaluation and textual marking, but I'd like to explore Bloglines as a serious knowledge tool with annotations, text analysis brokerage and various exports.

I just got their reply, which is such a spot-on example of what happens when you go from small and responsive to large and missing the point completely ;
Thank you for your interest in testing new Bloglines ideas. We have received a huge amount of interest and if you could provide the following information, we will be able to better schedule out our sessions. [...] 5) which of the following times will you be available to be in the San Francisco SOMA neighborhood for 1 hour for $75 on Tuesday, December 19th? [...]

Here's to hoping that part of their usability testing includes their own reading capabilities and / or systems. :) Customer love is hard to come by, and silly mistakes is often enough to make people look in some other direction to cover their needs. I'm not that easily turned off, though, but it sure is one for the records.

1 December 2006

Confluence User-Interface

Some time ago I got a mail from someone asking what I meant when I wrote "The out-of-the-box interface sucks big time" (see section on Confluence). I wrote back a long mail, but there was no follow-up reply, and because I've got several mail from people who also struggles with that very default interface, I have decided to post that mail here so that a) the information isn't lost, and b) you now know what I think about the Confluence default interface (at least before version 2.3). Also, we may package up our enhanced interface as an open-source thingy so that others can use it, but I'll have to sort some stuff out first. Here we go ;

> Could you elaborate some more on exactly what
> sucks about Confluence's UI so much to you?

Not so much to me, because I'm a geek, and with a bit of clicking and a bit of huffing I learn the paradigm of the interface and start using it. My users, on the other hand, hated it. Every test we did left them confused and uncertain about where to click next. My users are not geeks, nor incredibly computer litterate. And I'm an usability guy. Sparks surely would fly.

Maybe a few specifics are in order. I'll talk about some of the biggies ;

Where am I? If we are true to the Wiki form, every page is a page, but in Confluence this is not so; there are pages, label-pages, news, configuration, reports, and so forth. How does the interface reflect where you are and state you're in? The breadcrumb is really the only way that this is reflected, apart from the content (or sometimes hints within it) itself. but the difference between the content parts are cognitive hard to tell apart; the information shape is too similar across them all, and so we become relient on analysis of content instead of cognitive recognition. (basically the tabs aren't clear enough, nor consitently "content" based as sometimes you use them for functionality, and the same real-estate and concept is swapped depending on what you do and wherer you are)

Further on to this is the confusion people have when they're on a page and they can't edit it. (Difference between a page and a news item, or even a list of labels when things get a bit unclear) using tabs as functionality is also confusing here. A bigger problem occurs after some use of the system; why does a page have four function based tabs when "pages" is one of many content tabs? Where did my page go? Aren't pages part of the space? What is the difference between a page and a news item? And I could go on and on about using titles of pages as persistant links and the tree-structure imposed. :)

Why can't I label stuff as "fish fingers, bollocks" as with Flickr? Why can't we do controlled vocabularies? (This stuff isn't that hard to do; we've hacked Confluence to support it!) How can we do facetted navigation which better suits complex Wikis? Why aren't there better ways of dealing with lots of spaces? Why is added metadata to a page so hard (and with macros, so ugly)? (In fact, why aren't there a really neat user interface to attach metadata to pages, like properties, using bandana? Macro properties only works with extreme geeks, not human beings!) I can go on and on, and I'm pretty sure that there's *good* answers for why things are the way they are, and I certainly understand that a lot of these things are hard to change as they become legacy. In fact, I suspect most of the default user interface is built up over time and no-one dares to change it because it is very complex and rigid. (For example, why are there no Velocity templates for dealing with labels? I suspect a rushed job?)

Having said that, though, Confluence is fantastically flexible, and can do pretty much everything we want it to do, but at some point we need to add users to it, and that's when things start to break down a bit. We can't embed metadata in content, as normal people would balk at the macro scripts!

As a technologist I understand every decision that has been made, why things work the way they work, and I can figure out how to do pretty much anything I like; I grasp the paradigms and I can get around the interface to make it do what I do. I understand that conceptually a page belongs under the "pages" tab, but the interface doesn't reflect this and adds confusion. I understand how I can use the system to create hidden pages to do special stuff, and then include that content into a column of special info, and so forth. I can figure out what files involve the labels (and just that they're called labels instead of tagging makes things further tricky; another word to learn that means the same as something else) and implement a scheme of local and global controlled vocabulary. I can figure out how to have access control outside the realms of user administration, or to do news aggregation across spaces and repurpose these in external applications, and more. But I'm telling you, it hasn't been an easy ride! :)

I brought Confluence and JIRA into this organistation, and we use them both, even in synch, and technically it fits us like a glove (although with a few added features it would make a better kill, of course), but the user interface failed again and again. People will not battle with a user-interface; they'd rather forget about the tool alltogether. In our scenario, these are normal plain people trying to do very plain stuff. They're not geeks. Even the very concept of a Wiki is scary to them, and as such the interface must be as gentle as possible.


Anyways, I could ramble on about the user interface, the cognitive challenges it imposes, the confusing paradigms, Confluence as part of a greater set of "web 2.0" tools (sorry for using that expression), information architecture in a Wiki world, persistant identification (and how Confluence fails especially through repurposing of content), facetted navigation, content semantics and news aggregation (which is a neat business model in itself!) and so forth. I don't mean to give the Confluence guys pepper (hmm, a Norwegian expression, I fear), but I've spent over a year in the complex belly of the beast in trying to make the interface reasonably user friendly for our very boring normal users. So, um, forgive me. :)

I am a rock

I am a rock. Gravity holds me down, and all I can do is observe. I watch things go on around me, things that over time polishes my rough surface smooth. I see things change, and I accept change as a natural state. I am too slow to object.

I once wanted to become a tiny sand grain, dropping in between other rocks, pushed along by water wherever it went, take me on adventures, and show me the way. But I realised - sometimes I think a bit too late - that after being a grain, that after the next step, there was nothing. A rock has no light youth, only a slow decaying distance between being something important and being nothing.

I am happy to be a rock. Everything changes, yet everything stays the same. Drip drip will turn me to a pebble. Time to move on.