Web services for improved web application usability

April 10th, 2012  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

Via DF, Ziptastic is “a simple API that allows people to ask which Country, State and City are associated with a Zip Code.” This is truly excellent, and it addresses a longstanding pet peeve of mine.

In a similar vein, I’m pleased to announce my latest project. Ageist is a simple API to determine whether or not an individual is older than 13 given his or her birthday. (As an example, click here to see how old the Pixies album Trompe le Monde is, if you want to be really depressed.) While it does not (yet) calculate one’s racing age, I suspect certain race-registration websites could employ some combination of Ziptastic and Ageist to eliminate most of my user-experience complaints.

Interaction design failure

March 7th, 2012  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

I recently registered for an athletic event using a ubiquitous online-registration service that will remain nameless. Sadly, the process was embarrassing even by the low standards of the domain. First, it required me to enter my birthdate twice on consecutive forms. This is pretty ridiculous by itself, but the second form also asked me for my age on race day and for my assertion that I was older than 13, both of which could have been trivially calculated from my birthdate.

I often get annoyed when I have to enter even the tiniest amount of redundant information on barely-usable web sites (e.g. city, state, and ZIP code even though the first two are entailed by the last) but perhaps I’ve set the bar too high.


November 13th, 2009  |  Tags:  |  1 Comment

So A and I are preregistering for the upcoming birth of our daughter (pictured, sort of, here). The hospital’s preregistration wizard asks, as the very first question, if the registration is for a maternity visit, and it fills in some later values based on this choice. You’d think that they’d omit the worker’s compensation section from hospital visits related to giving birth, but since they didn’t, you can see some mildly amusing double entendres, none of which apply to us:


“Please give a brief description of where and how this accident happened,” for example.

An iPhone usability nit

October 22nd, 2009  |  Tags: , , , ,  |  3 Comments

I’ve had an iPhone for about 16 months now, and I’m pretty happy with every aspect of it that has nothing to do with the wireless carrier. However, some minor complaints are inevitable even in such a well-designed device. Consider, for example, the user interface displayed upon receiving a call. When the phone is asleep, the incoming-call UI looks like this:


To answer the call, you drag the green box from the left side of the phone to the right, just as you would do ordinarily to activate the phone’s screen. However, if your phone is awake — maybe you’re using it when someone called, or you recently put it in your pocket without explicitly putting it to sleep — the interface is different:


Now, years of computer use have conditioned most people to expect the affirmative option on the right in graphical interfaces. But even a few days of iPhone use are sufficient to condition one to drag from left-to-right in order to wake the phone or answer a call. I wonder how often one has send one’s wife straight to voicemail before one develops the necessary reflexes for the more-complex behavior demanded by this pair of interfaces.

Stupid usability tricks

September 9th, 2009  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

Blanket redirects to “mobile” sites are maybe the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen. Say you’re using a mobile browser and request a page with a URL that looks like this:

You’d have clicked there because you wanted some particular article, right? Well, there are an awful lot of values of foo for which the site administrator believes that he or she knows what’s best for you; these sites will redirect your request to a different URL:

And then your browser will render an enfeebled version of the home page, optimized for viewing on a tiny, tiny screen. It will not contain the content you’re looking for. In fact, it will offer no clue as to how to get to the content you’re looking for or — if you followed a shortened link (as is common on Twitter) — what that content actually was.

As just one example, if one were to click on the link in this tweet, one might expect to see a candidate for the worst sports article ever (indeed, the linked article must be in the top 25). One would not expect to see the “mobile” home page for the Orange County Register, which — beyond the ad for Tustin Toyota — is almost completely devoid of useful content.


June 25th, 2009  |  Tags: , , , ,  |  1 Comment

When Circuit City existed as an actual, physical retailer I thought they offered a surprisingly good online shopping experience. You could go to their site, check to see if something was in stock in your local store, and, if it was, pay for it online and pick it up from the front desk in about the time it would take you to drive there. (This was and probably still is vastly superior to the Best Buy experience, where purchasing something for in-store pickup means “within 24 hours or so” rather than “within 20 minutes.”) The workflow combined the best parts of shopping in person (immediate gratification) and shopping online (searching via a text box from one’s desk, rather than hunting around physical stores).

However, after Circuit City was liquidated, some company bought their trademarks and applied them to a fairly generic e-commerce site. Apparently, the fairly generic e-commerce site was also able to purchase customer lists, because I’ve been getting spam from them fairly regularly. Since the new doesn’t allow me to purchase something, drive six miles away, and pick it up in the same hour, it is not significantly more compelling than Amazon Prime; in any case, I’m not particularly interested in “hot deals” on mediocre computer hardware, which seem to be the bulk of’s current offerings.

My experience in trying to unsubscribe from these mailing lists — and I had been added to several, apparently — bodes poorly for the usability of the “new”, especially in light of how nice the old one was. The first problem was the “unsubscribe” notification at the bottom of one of the messages, which I have included below:


Not only does this (or “th is,” perhaps?) appear in a larger block of text that recalls every nearly-plausible phishing email I’ve ever received, the address is misspelled: “” isn’t a real domain. So my first attempt at unsubscribing bounced. Fortunately, this was fairly easy to correct: I sent a blank email to the appropriate address at “,” and was on my way. Or was I?


(Do note that I had sent a blank message — one without the word “subscribe” in it anywhere. Also note that “circuit-city-master-unsub” is an awfully strange name for a list.)

On the third try, I was able to unsubscribe, as far as I can tell. (I’m actually not sure whether or not “leaving” the “master-unsub” list will cause me to get additional mail.) A more cynical observer might conclude that has very little incentive to make it easy for me to opt out of further advertising, but this seems more like garden-variety incompetence to me. (Although I’m not particularly interested in entrusting my payment details to businesses who can’t manage their most basic computing infrastructure.)

It is, however, a little sad that the retailer who used to have my commodity consumer electronics ready within twenty minutes has given its name to a pedestrian “hot deals” list that requires twenty minutes of effort to leave.

Remaindered thoughts

February 26th, 2009  |  Tags: , , , , , ,  |  Leave a comment

Here are a few things I’ve long meant to post but haven’t for some reason or another. I still have a lot of drafts, but some of them are far too untimely to post now (the entry about Ronaldo probably falls under this category, actually). These posts are headed with their original intended titles and are in chronological order.

On genre (5/2008)

Consider this: Grand Theft Auto IV ends with a wedding, but it is not a comedy.

A minor usability note (7/2008)


“Status updates” — as made ubiquitous by web applications like Twitter and Facebook — demand brevity and thus encourage a writing style heavy on sentence fragments. Here’s a problem: the type of fragment most appropriate depends on the medium, because any “update” will be displayed in some context.

Facebook assumes that you are the subject of a sentence, and even goes so far as to supply the copula for you if you are entering an update through the web. Although the interface asks you a question (“What are you doing?”), Twitter users generally provide self-contained sentences that do not address what one is doing. Since I typically avoid the Facebook web interface, I relay my Twitter updates to Facebook, which probably makes them slightly less comprehensible than they are already. It would be better, I guess, if the Twitter-to-Facebook gateway provided some other clue that my twitter updates were not intended to complete a sentence starting with “William” or “William is.”

Ronaldo, slavery, and abuses of language (7/2008)

23-year old Cristiano Ronaldo is good enough at soccer that he makes £125,000 a week (ca. $542.8 trillion US) and is incapable of appearing in public without an Iberian swimsuit model at his side. (It’s not an entirely rosy picture — he does have to play for Man United.) Unfortunately for him, he is so doing as part of a long contract, which, like most contracts, restricts his ability to move to another team at will.

Sepp Blatter, head of FIFA, likens Ronaldo’s apparently onerously-long contract to the lot of a “modern-day slave.” Ronaldo, displaying all of the perspective that one might expect from a young man who is paid absurdly to kick a ball around and lives in a world that doesn’t regularly encounter forced slavery, agrees.

I guess if commentators in the US can apply “fascist” or “Stalinist” appellations to American politicians who have never organized mass genocides or purged their staff from history, then it’s difficult to get particularly exercised about someone who could pay cash for a new primary residence every week comparing himself to a child sold to a brothel for a pack of cigarettes.

Difficulty and worthiness (12/2008)

Longtime readers of this site are probably aware of the most popular — in terms of comments — thing I’ve ever written. (If you aren’t, perhaps you should take a break to see how one might finance a college education, and then come back when you’re done.) I have previously lamented the lack of reading comprehension exhibited by nearly all of my benighted correspondents on this matter, but would like to focus now on a theme that has appeared ever more aggressively in recent comments. I am referring to the idea that something is worth doing — and, moreover, worth demanding spectators for — merely because it is difficult or expensive, or is likely to result in injuries, or whatever. This seems to me to be plainly false, but since it is such a popular claim, I would like to debunk it here by way of several analogies:

Downhill shopping cart racing certainly can result in bruises and lacerations and probably requires a grueling practice schedule. However, most of the practitioners are hoboes and most of the spectators are misanthropes and the audience of MTV’s Jackass. But I repeat myself.

Consider the early serial music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, which extended the serial tone row idea to all aspects of performance, so that each note had a different dynamic level, articulation, or whatever. This music is probably hard to write (especially, as Stockhausen was at the time, without a computer) and it is definitely hard to perform. However, I have a very hard time recommending that anyone invest the time in learning how to perform these works (or in attending a performance). Furthermore, I suspect that efforts to reproduce this idiom would be ultimately unsatisfying, as with any musical language that hurts listeners or otherwise sounds like yelling.

Other example pursuits also come to mind, but they hit rather closer to home.