Wednesday, November 28, 2012

New Main Element Approved, then Blocked

HTML5 logo — I am the 'alt,' not the 'title' When I saw main proposed as an element a few months ago (or content or maincontent as alternate names), I didn't think the process to fold it into the HTML specification would move very quickly.

Much to my surprise on the W3C HTML Working Group mailing list the main element not only got a draft HTML5 extension specification quickly, it also worked its way through the process to become approved as a First Public Working Draft on Tuesday (yesterday) the 27th of November.

And so the process appears to be working.

Except the W3C is just one of the standards bodies working on HTML5. There is also WHATWG, the body that years ago picked up the then-discarded HTML specification from W3C and started to carry it forward to HTML5. Now the two groups work together, with the W3C working on versioned specifications with WHATWG working on the ever-evolving standard.

Over on the WHATWG mailing list, main doesn't seem to be getting much traction from the editor, which leaves it in a bit of limbo. WHATWG does, however, try to reflect in its specification approach that which is already in place in the browsers. For example, if the browser makers suddenly supported main, then WHATWG would consider it viable.

Except WHATWG was started by, and is still made up of, people from the browser makers Apple, Mozilla and Opera. Others contribute, but its membership can heavily influence the direction browsers take.

When the author of the main extension specification started to add support for main to WebKit (the core of Apple Safari and Google Chrome), the WebKit bug report quickly turned into a fresh debate over the merit of the main element — by none other than the WHATWG editor.

Mozilla team members have pre-emptively stated that they do not support main being added to HTML5, but they did so on the WebKit mailing list. The argument against main being added as a patch to the browsers is this:

Shopping a patch to implementors, to get something into a standard spec by asserting de-facto status based on the patch(es) landing, is bad form.

Sadly, it seems the same circular argument is being used to block main in the WHATWG HTML specification. By blocking its implementation in browsers, WHATWG members can claim there is no real-world support and so no need to add it to the specification (this is assuming the arguments against the use cases still stand). Then it's a matter of pushing back at the W3C HTML Working Group to let it wither over there.

Even the author of the use cases for the main element appears to have thrown in the towel at WHATWG.

There is still some hope, however. Both Opera and Internet Explorer representatives have not argued against it and have even offered some support:

Bear in mind, all this has happened in roughly a 48 hour window. Much more will happen, but the start of this process is certainly not as positive as I had hoped (disclosure, I voted for it on the W3C list). Even if you aren't in favor of the main element, this is still a telling view into the standards-making process.

Update, January 31, 2013

And there it is, main has appeared in the WHATWG version of the HTML specification.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Network Solutions and Dark Patterns

We should be familiar with anti-patterns in user interface design — counter-intuitive or ineffective user interface techniques.

Dark patterns are user interface design patterns that intentionally try to steer users into taking actions that are in the best interest of the site owner, not the user. Sadly, users encounter these all the time. You can get a more verbose overview at the dark patterns wiki, which is from where I am stealing this phrase.

For example, do you ever notice how banner ads (typically for questionable weight loss or beauty aids) tend to vibrate every few moments, shaking just a pixel or two? This is intentional because our visual systems are trained to react to movement in our peripheral vision, like an attacking tiger (or liposuction ad).

The real problem comes when this intentional exploitation of user behavior is designed to ultimately confuse users into submission or to hand over (too much) money.

In the case of the latter, I have an example I'd like to take you through. I have used Network Solutions as my domain registrar for years, primarily because that's who I was with before ICANN opened up the registry business to others. I have stayed with Network Solutions because of the hassle of moving away from it, even though the hassle of staying has probably far outweighed it by now.

As an aside, I'd like to take this opportunity to explain that I will not use the morally bankrupt filth that is GoDaddy for a variety of reasons, not least of which is related to its absurd objectification of women, its founder's flimsily explained killing of elephants, its support of SOPA, or its status as a target to the likes of script kiddies.

Back to the meat of my post. I wanted to both register a new domain and renew an existing domain this week and found the process so overwhelming that I feel it's a great example of an ecommerce anti-pattern, a dark pattern. I'll run you through each process, both in my personal Network Solutions account and in my corporate Network Solutions account. I did this using two different browsers to avoid polluting my cookies, so I cannot say whether the differences in design elements are a function of my accounts or my browser.

For each screen capture you can click/tap/select it to see the full-size image.

Registering a Domain

My first test was to register a domain name using Firefox 16.02 and my personal account and Chrome 23.0.1271.64 with my company account.

Screen shot of Network Solutions home page in Chrome. Screen shot of Network Solutions home page in Firefox.
The Network Solutions home page in Chrome (left, company account) and Firefox (right, personal account).

As you can see, the home page is pretty straightforward. There are a few sales pitches, and the link to log in may be hard to find, but the blue button is established as a prominent way of taking action.

Immediately after logging into my personal account using Firefox I am presented with a sales pitch. Note the use of the blue button in the green box surrounded by the gray border. The option to continue without adding this product is drawn in grays below the sales pitch.

On my Account Manager page, my company account (left) is straight to business, listing domains and actions I can take. My personal account is trying to pitch me on the private registration product and also continues to establish the blue button as a means of taking action.

As I move to conduct a search for a new domain name, in both cases the .com and .net are pre-selected as options. I know I am only interested in .com, so I de-select .net as an option.

This screen is fairly straightforward — it shows me what is available, offers me more extensions from which to choose, and allows me to remove a domain entirely. The blue button allows me to add my selection to my shopping cart.

Clicking Add to Cart immediately results in this overlay for both accounts. I can add a bundle of three or five more domains, using the blue button. Or I can skip this with the far less prominent No Thanks button.

Now it starts to get a bit tricky. In both cases I am being offered an opportunity to keep my information hidden with private registration. You'll note that in both cases private registration is pre-selected and the price is listed, though far less obviously in the Chrome view. There is no language saying that I am adding this to my cart (as I have seen on previous screens), just a Continue or Next button. There isn't an obvious "no thanks" option, either.

To get past this screen without adding $10 to your order you have to read the text, which means you are being subjected to its fear-mongering language (I'm already getting spam, and telemarketers call my house, so there's no real benefit to me). Then you have to choose the radio button for the standard registration, and then press the Next button. This is a departure from previous screens where the user has been trained to look for the gray "nope" option.

The Next button without an accompanying No Thanks gray button beneath it can cause users to breeze through this page without noticing the pre-checked option.

On this screen I am hit with the hosting pitch. Far stronger for my company account, but I still get the pitch when in my personal account. You may note the price difference between the cheapest plan for my company account versus the only plan offered to my personal account. The plans may in fact be different, but at a glance it looks like Network Solutions is playing a numbers game based on my account type.

You may also note that one screen offers a button to Continue Without Adding Hosting while the other simply uses a Next button with no hosting pre-selected.

These are the kinds of clues that suggest someone has made a conscious decision about what I should see as a customer and may be intentionally using these dark patterns.

Now I am getting hit with the leftover product pitches. For my company account (still in Chrome but spanning two screen shots) I see domain forwarding, email for my new domain, and SSL options. Reading the language for each, especially the SSL, these are clearly targeted to less technical customers. However, none of the options are pre-selected and just clicking the blue Continue button gets me past this screen.

For my personal account, I get similar product pitches. No SSL option is listed, but there is forwarding, email, and a "mobile" add-on option for the email. The "none" options are pre-selected, so in this case pressing the blue View Your Shopping Cart will get you past this screen without adding any products.

The shopping cart is your last chance to make sure you haven't added anything you don't want. For this demonstration I didn't add anything along the way, so it's easy to see what I have. Oddly, the shopping cart in Chrome for my company account shows me my "savings" and pitches me on why I should register my domain for five years. The shopping cart in Firefox (personal account) does no such thing.

I bet when you clicked the all-caps blue SECURE CHECKOUT button you thought you were done with the sales pitches. Not so. Here we see the the pitch to protect your domain if you forget to renew it, along with a blue Add to Cart button. At least there is a gray No Thanks, Continue button below it.

This may be a bit jarring in case you thought you were free and clear, after all you were just in you cart, just reviewed it and are ready to pay. If you do accidentally click Add to Cart, you are not presented with your shopping cart again to verify the charges. It just takes you right to the payment screen.

Here you see the total (I did not add the expiration protection), with no cart, as Network Solutions takes your credit card details and bills you. You may also notice that the auto-renew option is pre-selected. What isn't mentioned is that Network Solutions will bill your credit card 90 days before the domain is set to expire, well before the period when many organizations make a decision to switch registrars and well before the 60 days-to-expiration window many registrars impose when they won't allow a switch.

This screen shot is not part of the order flow. If you do select auto-renew accidentally you cannot simply deselect it in your account later, you have to call Network Solutions and sit through its CSRs' protestations and sales pitches to undo it.

Renewing a Domain

Assuming you weren't tricked into auto-renewing, this next test shows renewing a domain name using Chrome 23.0.1271.64 with my company account. I tried to do this in Opera, but had no luck:

Regardless, the process will look very similar. For each screen capture you can click/tap/select it to see the full-size image.

Upon choosing my domain to renew I am promptly pitched on picking up yet more domain names.

Here is the pitch to make my already-public information private (for a fee). You may notice that this screen is different from the two analogous versions we saw above. Here the radio buttons next to the two options are replaced with a grid below, though the option to add the $10 charge is still pre-selected with the big blue Continue button cheerily prompting you to click it without paying attention.

This pitch confounds me. I am renewing my domain, which already has DNS managed elsewhere, but I am still being offered hosting. At least on this screen, unlike the previous screen, it is safe to click Continue.

The suggestion that I need a mobile site is laughable and belies the complexity involved in taking a pre-existing site and suddenly spinning up a mobile version elsewhere. However, I can safely click Continue. Someone who adds this, however, may end up spending more time and money to undo it as a result.

The shopping cart is a brief safe area, assuming I am comfortable with the five year registration period.

Once again comes an offer after I have reviewed the cart, and as I mentioned above, adding the product at this point doesn't bring you back to the cart. This screen makes it too easy to add more to your order without an easy way to verify it.

Wrap-up

Network Solutions is not the only one to make use of dark patterns. It just happens to be one that has tricked me before and has caught many of my clients as well. I simply consider the Network Solutions dark pattern order process to be low hanging fruit, an easy example of how a confusing ecommerce flow and user interface can negatively impact users, intentionally or otherwise.

Update, July 24, 2013

In a post titled The slippery slope, Harry Brignull provides even more examples of dark patterns.

Update, January 28, 2014

Not content to stop at just one stream of dark patterns, I found another one: Network Solutions and Yet More Dark Patterns

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Ignoring Social Media This Thanksgiving

Past Thanksgivings

Three years ago I wrote a post describing how I used social media during my 2008 Thanksgiving dinner (mostly to keep my guests pacified in my tiny house while I considered cooking a turkey with a pencil torch). To my family it was novel to watch people across the country post their meals, perhaps in stark contrast to what I was feeding them.

I posted again about Thanksgiving and social media in 2010, this time discussing how people were getting help with their holiday plans online and how social media was far noisier than it was two years prior.

Last year when I posted about Thanksgiving, I included the #Turkey911 hashtag and talked about what a terrible idea it would be to answer the call from the web to upgrade your parents' browser. I also noticed even more noise on all the social media outlets, including from my own friends who had derided me for my food photos from prior years.

This Thanksgiving

This year as Thanksgiving approaches I realize there are far more people using social media than there were back in 2008 when I first started posting my holiday photos.

In 2008, Twitter had about 6.0 million users. As of March 2012, Twitter is up to 140 million users. In 2008, Facebook was at 100 million users and as of last month has now hit 1 billion users worldwide. Other social media outlets have come and gone, but these two demonstrate the overall penetration social media has into everybody's life.

That also helps explain why there is so much more noise online. Whereas in 2008 many users were sharing with smaller audiences, not as vocal, and spam and advertising wasn't a big deal, in 2012 it feels like everyone wants to share everything while I am also constantly being assaulted with social spam.

Two pieces I read in the last few days stood out to me as I was thinking about the coming holiday and social media.

The Quiet Ones

Over at The New York Times is an opinion piece titled, "The Quiet Ones." The author tells a story of riding in Amtrak's Quiet Car, where passengers are expected to be as close to silent as possible. In it the author makes the following observation:

In a 2006 interview David Foster Wallace said, it seems significant that we don't want things to be quiet, ever, anymore. Stores and restaurants have their ubiquitous Muzak or satellite radio; bars have anywhere between 1 and 17 TVs blaring Fox and soccer; ads and 30-second news cycles play on screens in cabs, elevators and restrooms. […]

People are louder, too. They complain at length and in detail about their divorces or gallbladders a foot away from you in restaurants. […] People practice rap lyrics on the bus or the subway, barking doggerel along with their iPods as though they were alone in the shower.

Mobile Vs. Social

Yesterday I read a blog post, "Mobile Vs. Social." In it the author discusses how people essentially need this constant input and interaction, that we are giving up or stifling real human interaction for the false human interaction of social media (or even SMS or email). He suggests just looking around in public to see it in action:

Just look at parties, lunches or any other grown-up interaction scene you can think of. People talk for a while, and then they just can't help themselves looking at their phones. Just for a second. Just needing that latest "fix."

My Point

I have a suggestion for all of us for Thanksgiving this year, one I will try to follow myself (which won't be easy) — turn off your phone.

I have no illusions about how trying Thanksgiving can be for many and how compelling it will be to escape to the cultivated social constructs in your phone. This tweet may sum it up nicely:

So let's give it a shot. Consider it good practice for the coming bandwidth / electricity / zombie apocalypse.

If you need a little convincing, see if this TED video from Sherry Turkle ("Connected, but Alone?") does it:

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Social Media Profile versus a Web Site

We paid $3,000 in Facebook ads last year to attract some new fans. Now, with this fancy [promote] button, we can pay $3,000 more for those fans to actually see our updates.
This image gleefully stolen from The Page That No One Will Ever See. Now it may be a seen page.

Yesterday an eye-catching headline popped up in my Twitter feed: 6 Reasons Facebook and Twitter Are More Important Than a Website (which is a different message than the author's "infographic" that suggests users find Facebook more useful than a brand's site). I have been down this road more than once, but I thought I would follow the link and see what those six well-thought, sound business reasons must be.

1. Websites Require Constant Maintenance

Given the immediate nature of social media, a traditional marketing web site needs far less maintenance than trying to engage followers. I argue that many users expect content on a web site to be relatively constant, updated as appropriate and, in the case of some web applications, automated to a degree.

A Twitter account that pushes out content every few days, however, might be considered slow. One that pushes content every few minutes can be an assault to a follower's timeline. One that doesn't respond to tweets from users might be considered disrespectful.

Contrast this with a Facebook page that has some traction and has many fans. When those fans post to the brand's wall or comment on posts from the brand, there is an expectation of a quick response from users, which requires constant vigilance to keep users from feeling like they are being ignored.

The author also claims web sites can cost between $50 and $5,000 dollars to build, but makes no effort to identify how much a social media resource costs to maintain profiles and fresh content across multiple social media outlets. This assumes a business isn't so clueless that interns are considered good resources for representing the entire brand on social media.

Sticking with the cost argument, I think the author hasn't been paying attention to recent Facebook changes in the form of promoted content.

2. Social Media Is Scalable

The author seemingly assumes most web sites are hosted on servers under desks. Granted, the real point is that a web site may not be able to handle traffic from a random viral traffic spike.

This may very well be true for some sites, but given how many sites are hosted on, and get resources from, content delivery networks and national hosts, the need to scale can often be handled with a phone call to a hosting provider to kick the site into the next hosting bracket. One cannot call Twitter or Facebook when it has been overloaded and demand it scales up for your traffic.

Interestingly, pages on my own site have suffered far more downtime as a result of embedded content from Twitter and Facebook. When they suffer the inevitable and random "fail whale," their poorly-written scripts can take down my entire page. At least when social media platforms are on the fritz, I can still direct users to the rest of my web site for information.

3. Websites Require Specialized Knowledge

I am actually a little sad this point isn't true. With the preponderance of WYSIWYG editors, export-to-web features, free platforms like Blogger or Wordpress with pre-built themes, it's far too easy for someone without specialized knowledge to get his or her message out there. And this is a good thing.

The author does make a point that to have a truly unique site with modern standards such as HTML5 and CSS will require someone with skill to do it for you. Oddly, the alternative he proposes is to use exactly the same Facebook or Twitter layout as everyone else. And I can personally guarantee it won't be built to modern standards such as HTML5 and CSS.

To be fair to social media, almost no web site claiming to be built to modern standards actually is either.

4. Your Customers Are Already on Social Media

Really? He knows that? He has run a series of surveys, done market analysis, engaged my users directly and determined they are on social media? And he found more than 15% of US adult web users are on Twitter?

For my target audience, he is right. Although that's by accident. I can also rattle off plenty of businesses (including my own clients) who don't know that for sure, haven't done the research, aren't in a position to, and can even guess that it's still not true.

The assumption in the article is that users are already inundated with web addresses. He argues that somehow a link to a Facebook page can percolate above all that, that even a Twitter hashtag will make sense to more users. The logic is that users are already on social media, so they'll just go right to your message.

Nevermind that your target users may be in a demographic that doesn't use social media. Or your business may not be a fit for social media. Or that there are still more web users than Facebook users (even if you include the thousands and thousands of fake accounts). Or that there is already enough noise in my Twitter and Facebook feed I don't see stuff from my real-life friends.

5. You’ll Be Easier to Find

Using SEO as a dirty word (well, it is), the author suggests that it's hard to find things on the web. He says social media platforms have their own search already, so if you just focus there you will be found much more readily.

To make an anecdotal argument here, which is abnormal for me but curiously appropriate in this case, I can tell you that if I want to find a brand or person on Twitter or Facebook, I go to Google first. Google provides a far better search for me than I can get in Facebook's or Twitter's results, partly because both Twitter and Facebook are too busy trying to pitch me or assume I know their lingo. If I'm not logged into either one, it's an overall useless experiment. If I am trying to research a product or service, then Facebook and Twitter are the last places I'll go.

Given how readily Twitter suggests people or brands I should follow that are either promoted, of no interest, or that I have already unfollowed, I would not rely on the discovery method of gaining new followers. Given how Facebook has changed its model to require you to pay to get your message in front of fans and their friends (promoted posts), I wouldn't rely on discovery there, either.

If you dismiss the value of a search engine to help users find you and rely solely on the search and discovery features of social media, then you are painting yourself into a corner. Twitter use won't generate enough content over time for all your targeted phrases (unless you constantly assault followers) and neither will Facebook, because they both push older content down, out of the view of search engines.

6. Facebook and Twitter Facilitate Content Creation

Yes, they do.

When I am particularly angry at a brand, I go right to their Facebook wall and post my issue. I also approach them on Twitter. In some cases, I hijack their hashtags. I create all sorts of content about how much that brand has disappointed me. The brand may respond and make it right, but my words are out there, getting indexed by Google, being associated with the brand.

But that's not what the author means, he means (his words) content can often be generated through the simple click of an upload button. Regardless of the fact that you need someone to take that photo, craft that caption, be available to respond if people engage with it, and even hope that anyone cares, he's telling us that content is free and writes itself.

Which it doesn't. Otherwise I wouldn't have had such a good turnout (and feedback) at my content strategy session at the local WordCamp.

Wrap-up

Only in the closing paragraph does the author suggest that maybe you might still need a web site and maybe you might benefit from Twitter and Facebook. So I have to ask myself, why didn't he lead with this? Why are the hollow arguments told strictly from the perspective of spending you effort on Facebook and Twitter to the detriment of your site? Because he's a social media services peddler.

If the author truly believed that Twitter and Facebook are more important to have than a web site, then I look forward to when he demonstrates that belief by shutting down his site and moving it all to Facebook and Twitter. Until then, it's a poorly-argued sales pitch.

Related

These are posts I've written that go into more detail on some of the points I raise above. Traditional web sites easily have as many issues and more, but that's not what this discussion is about.