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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Goodbye Opera, hello Firefox

Use the best tool for the job. That's a motto of mine. So I find myself back to using Firefox, this time version 3, in preference to Opera after several years with the Norwegian browser.

Why? The latest update to Opera--9.63--introduced so many bugs with Google products as to make them unuseable. Google Mail wouldn't accept any clicks to the UI, and Google Maps simply stalled on loading with the offer to switch to a "basic" html version. No thanks.

Simple truth is that many javascript-heavy apps, including Facebook which I use heavily, run much faster under Firefox than they do in Opera (at least at the moment). I don't know why for sure, but I suspect that the developers of these apps optimise them more for Firefox than for Opera due to the former's larger market share. There's no doubt that Opera has good competitive performance, including in javascript benchmarks, but it just doesn't hack it on the real web.

At the same time Firefox has come a long way with version 3. Memory usage finally seems reasonable and performance doesn't degrade to a crawl after a day or two, as was the case with version 2. Firefox 3 also requires fewer add-ons to bring the UI up to the standard of Opera--I'm only using Tab Mix Plus to get back to Opera's (much smarter) default behaviour for opening and closing tabs, plus Speed Dial to bring back one of Opera's best features. The Speed Dial add-on is nowhere near as polished as Opera's built-in implementation, with far more complex and confusing "options" to wade through and a rather ugly UI, but it gets the job done.

All is not plain sailing though--Firefox 3's bookmarks manager is just dumb. Add a new bookmark and it vanishes into a "recent bookmarks" folder. I just want a simple list when I click "Bookmarks" in the toolbar! Worse, if you use the bookmarks manager to create a new folder to organise some bookmarks and drag them from the recent bookmarks list to the new folder, the bookmarks are then duplicated in recent bookmarks list--madness! If you want to delete the duplicate, you can't tell which is in the recent bookmarks folder and which is in your new folder. Cue much frustration and loss of bookmarks. Thank goodness for delicious.com!

On a similar note I've also dropped Foxit Reader for Adobe Reader 9. Version 9 of Reader loads far more quickly than 8 ever did (or 7 or 6 for that matter!) and the far better quality of document rendering, scaling, and scrolling makes it much the better choice. Plus I like the direct intergration within Firefox--PDF documents load in Reader in a tab, rather than in a new window in a new app.

Keep an open mind folks, and don't be afraid to switch software--use the best!

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

English village fete calendar/guide

'Tis the season for village fetes. I love to go to these with my family -- my mum loves the cakes and teas (I don't mind them either), the kids love the games. A nice way to see a nice bit of proper English countryside. We'd always found out about local fetes through a BBC local website "what's on" guide. Well turns out that the almighty and all-arrogant BBC have closed this event guide (it was the only useful thing on their local website).

After a bit of googling I've found the Innocent Smoothie village fete calendar, which seems to fit the bill. Not that many entries on there yet though :-(, but better than nowt. If you know of any village fetes that aren't on there already do submit them!

Cute website too.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

BBC News redesign: while developers ignore their users, the users fix the site!

Today Julia Whitney, "Head of Design & User Experience, Journalism", has posted a second response to the 1,500+ odd complaints about the new BBC News website. Most of it is disingenuous, fingers-in-ears "nah nah nah we can't hear you" fluff, but this part takes the biscuit:

"For those of you who mentioned flexible rather than fixed width, and concerns about the line spacing and the grey type - we'll take these themes into our next set of user testing and listening labs over the course of the next month and a half."

So it's going to take six weeks of "focus groups" to decide that actually, black text on white (as used by the rest of the entire print and internet worlds) is better than low-contrast* grey? Sounds more like a politician trying to hide behind excuses rather than admit they were wrong. And we all respect people who do that, don't we?!

Luckily you don't have to wait that long to fix the site, at least if you're using the Firefox or Opera browsers (IE users are out of luck). A site's design is dictated by something called "CSS", short for cascading style sheets, and these two browsers allow you to over-ride those rules with "local" ones.

What a developer on the userstyles.org website has done is develop a set of rules that "fix" the new BBC News layout. It removes the large black banner at the top and the big grey one at the bottom, sets the page back to left-alignment, removes much of the excess "whitespace", reduces the page width to something manageable, and replaces the grey text with proper black. (What it can't do is restore all those missing story links. Less content in more space. Crazy.)

If you're using Firefox, you first need to install the Stylish plugin. Then visit this userstyles.org page, install the new syle, and voila, a fixed BBC News website is yours to enjoy.

Opera users don't have to install anything new, but have a slightly more complex path to follow:

1. Open Notepad
2. Go to the userstyles page and click "Load as user script"
3. Copy and paste that code into Notepad
4. Save that file as "user.css" somewhere. Be sure to change the filetype from "Text" to "All" before saving -- this is very important
5. Navigate to BBC News in Opera and right-click on the page
6. Select "Edit site preferences" and then click the "Display" tab
7. At the bottom of that tab, "choose" the "user.css" file you just created
8. Click "OK" and enjoy a fixed BBC News page :-).

*I was interested to see if the new grey text broke usability standards, so did a quick investigation. Via 456 Berea Street I downloaded a contrast analyser. To meet minimum standards, text should have a contrast ratio of at least 5:1 and preferably 7:1. Black text on white has a contrast ratio of 21:1, but BBC News's new grey-on-white has a ratio of only 9:1 -- just above the standard, but still much poorer than black-on-white. Other areas of text, such as certain headers(!), have ratios as low as 4:1 -- well below the minimum.

The new site really is a joke. Hundreds of markup errors and it doesn't even meet basic usability guidelines.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The BBC News redesign disaster

Update: The BBC "responds" to the criticism so far, but actually fails to answer a single point made in the 1,400+ complaints now left on the BBC blogs.

Something very strange is happening in the BBC webdesign department. Usability rules and user experience testing seems to have been tossed out the window in a head-long rush to be new. The revamped BBC News website has so many problems it's hard to know where to begin. However a flavour of its reception can be gained from the comments to the blog announcement, which after just 30 hours has seen over 1,000 complaints about the site! That's despite the problems with commenting to BBC blogs due to their being locked into an ancient version of Movable Type, meaning that it takes minutes for a comment to finish posting, if at all.

Other BBC blogs, such as the BBC Internet blog announcement, have seen their comments turned off to hide from the deluge. Nick Reynolds says, in the comments below, that this was to herd the comments into one place, although oddly now there are at least three BBC blog posts on the topic with comments enabled. Make of that what you will...

So what's so bad about the site? Let's start with the mark-up. A w3c validation check shows 347 errors in the "XHTL 1.0" code. Three hundred and forty-seven! That must be some kind of record. Oddly, setting the validator to check against HMTL 4.01 shows only 81 errors. So it seems the BBC coders don't know the first thing about compliant code, or even which doctype to use.

(Update 2 April Martin Belam explains that the legacy CMS the BBC use could well be the cause of such bad mark-up.)

Their CSS fares better -- only five errors and 275 warnings against CSS 2.1. In fact their CSS performance is remarkably good considering the site has 54 kb of code spread over 8 CSS files.

(In total there are 140 seperate objects on the page, including another 54 kb of external javascript in ten files.)

More coding oddities include using pixels to specifiy font sizes rather than the standard ems, that a serif font is specified after verdana making the site rather ugly on many Linux systems, and the fact when the site first launched it didn't work at all in Firefox (tiny text), which opens questions about the BBC's testing procedures. (In fact the site is also broken on the iPhone.)

Other design changes seem odd. The new site is 1024px wide, but has 15% less content (primarily a reduction in the number of stories linked to from the main page, cutting links in the Around the World, UK, and Sections from two to one). This forces the user to scroll and eye-scan over a much larger distance in order to access less content. The space is taken up by increased padding around the remaining elements. I can't find a single design guideline that mandates that.

Despite ostensibly being based on a grid (pdf), very little on the page lines up. The left column, including the banners, features five different horizontal alignments (and six styles of text, including text-as-images). Included in that is the main BBC logo and the large BBC News logo immediately below -- they don't line up.

Vertically, the main and right columns fail to align too, with jumps in the horizontal dividers.

(The right column also features links to videos in the original Real Media format, despite claims that the site now uses embedded Flash video.)

Very little bolding is used for the headers, which for the minor ones depend on ALLCAPS. How very '90s. The reduced contrast and lack of background-highlighting makes scanning for seperate sections much more laborious.

Perhaps the strangest design choice though is the use of grey text, rather than black, on the white background. The reduced contrast makes the site harder on the eye and is one of the leading complaints to the blog announcement. To say that this goes against everything usability stands for is an understatement -- a triumph of form over function.

However the grey-on-white text must vie against the new pan-BBC header bar -- simply a black rectangle with two links and a search box. The search box doesn't indicate whether it's a site search or a web search -- maybe it's just pot luck? Originally there used to be links to the major BBC website sections such as News, TV, and Radio, but they've been swept away. Presumeably the BBC believes that users will instead type into the search box to access these sites, much as many web users now use Google as their "bookmarking" system. Hard to see how this increases site usability.

Overall the site is a disaster in both design and usability. During the recent BBC homepage redesign it was boasted that the site had been developed and deployed in only three months with a minimum of testing and usability studies. This trend of slap-dash, rapid-development seems to have spread throughout BBC webdesign.

Compare all this to their last redesign in 2003. Everything lines up. Consisent fonts are used throughout. The aim of the design was to show more information with less scrolling. Pretty much perfect! (For a flavour of the quite positive reactions that redesign brought, read this thread on Webmaster World.)

Perhaps the BBC have been drinking too much of the web 2.0 kool-aid. Agile programming, release early and often etc. Such memes might suit small, young companies such as 37signals, but not heavyweight players. How often has Google changed its homepage in the last ten years? Even much younger, fully "2.0" sites such as Facebook have stayed away from rushed redesigns.

The most ironic part of the whole debacle is that, in the original blog announcement, the BBC confesses that the majority of users they surveyed before the changes were made had said "leave the site alone"!

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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Companies: don't blog if you can't keep it up!

Take, for example, Adpinion. An interesting new startup where readers rate the ads they see on websites, so the adverts served to them become more and more relevant -- clever stuff.

However Adpinion has started a blog called Button of Judgement (named after the thumbs up/thumbs down button on their ads). In three days this January they made three (good) posts, and then nadda, nothing, zip. That doesn't inspire confidence in their product! How can I trust them to maintain their service, when they can't even maintain their own blog?

I found Adpinion through Paul Stamatiou, who writes a great nerd blog.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Google GDrive: would you trust it with your data?

Hell I would. Here I back up my families' and my own data across all our machines in different locations ("lots of copies keeps stuff safe"; more on that later), but really few people do that. Most have their data on one computer -- vulnerable to fire, theft, accidental damage, simple mechanical failure, you name it.

By comparison a remote server adminstered by Google will have *lots* of back-up systems covering it. I'd say that's a lot safer.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Free AOL anti-virus - down the pan

I've been using AOL "Active Virus Shield" for the last few months, and have been a happy bunny as under the branding it's actually Kaspersky, which rates tops in tests of AV software.

However AOL have just mailed me announcing that they're discontinuing the Kaspersky product and replacing it with one based on McAfee. I have two problems with this. First, I like my software to be stable and not need baby-sitting - I certainly don't want software I have to entirely replace whenever the supplier feels like it (I've been using Microsoft XP since 2002). OK, I guess I was expecting a bit much with free software from AOL, but all the same it's pretty obvious that they tender for their AV supplier every so often and that's no use to me.

Second, McAfee is a piece of crap. I'm not having that on my system!

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Wikipedia being edited by US defence industry

Take a look at this. Steven Trimble is a senior editor on Flight International and he's been using the wikiscanner. It seems a lot of none-too-bright employees of major defence industry companies have been editing Wikipedia to massage their products or trash those of their competitors. None-too-bright as they've not been creating accounts, and so have left their company IP addresses for all too see...

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Friday, September 07, 2007

And we're back

After a good 36 hours, Google Reader is restored to Opera users. What an utter shambles.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Google Reader not working with Opera

In the last few hours Google have made a change to Reader that prevents it from loading in Opera - Google Reader is broken. As a poster on this Google Reader Help group thread says, Opera is not some obscure browser. Google should be testing more thoroughly than this.

Just imagine if you're company was using Google Apps and they screwed that up like this... you begin to realise why the "online office" has no future.

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