Mar 12, 2015

Too Clever to be Useful

User interfaces are often designed by people who do not understand that they are not the measure of all things. The design interfaces that are easy to use, easy to understand, and pretty... according to the designers. The designers do not remember the rest of the world does not share the assumptions the designer have. They do not share the designers taste. They do not share the designers culture, language, or even all of their physical characteristics and abilities. 

We people out here do not know, or care about, the clever principles you based your design on. We do not know, or care about, the constraints you faced when designing the interface. We do not care about any of that. We only care if we can use the interface to get our job done with a minimal amount of effort and a minimal chance of nailing ourselves to the wall. People will only learn as much as they need to get their job done. The more they have to learn to use your interface the more likely that they will just walk away and bad mouth you. The more times they have to learn a new interface for do the same old task the more likely they are just skip the new version or switch to a different vendor. A vendor whose interface is easier to use.

People see a new or different interface as a barrier to getting their jobs done. They see having to relearn the interface over and over again as stealing their lives. They see the changes a disrespect. They see it as you wasting part of their all to short lives by making them learn one more way of doing the same damn thing.

Sometimes the designers make a clever interface with the expectation that the interface will be powerful. They do not realize that the result is actually confusing and error prone. A plethora of features and clever behaviors leads to people getting unexpected results as a result of unexpected interactions between features of the overall system.

The first time I ran into this problem was in the middle '70s. I was an experienced Fortran programmer. One night Dave, another experienced Fortran programmer (and the only person I have ever found sleeping face down on a keyboard), and I were sitting around talking when a contractor we both knew came in to ask us a question. Noel was a very experienced Fortran programmer. She was teaching a night class in Fortran and had given a test, graded it, and returned it to the class. Everyone had given the wrong answer to a question about the Fortran FORMAT statement.

When she was reviewing the test with the class several people challenged her answer to the formatting question. They had different answers and they were sure they were right. After a discussion with the class she realized that she was not 100% sure she was right. So, she promised to research the question and make sure she had the correct answer. This is a very reasonable thing for an instructor to do. Not half the instructors I have had would have done that. I have encountered one "school" where you are not allowed to do what she did. The official answer is correct even when it is wrong.

Her review of the question started with asking Dave and I what the correct answer was. Dave gave his answer and Noel and I showed him that he was wrong. I gave my answer and both Dave and Noel showed me that I was wrong. We had a friendly little argument, like programmer do, that lasted a few minutes. We dug out the textbook and the manuals and traced through the definitions and realized that we could be there all night. By that time we had all changed our answers but we still did not agree.

I suggested that we code up the question and run it. Well, we did that. When theory fails do the experiment. Coded does not lie! The results did not match my answer, or Dave's, or Noel's. It also did not match any of the answers that any of the students had come up with. Noel dropped the question from the grading for the test.

In Fortran, the FORMAT statement is sort of like the format strings used by C's printf function, but much more powerful and complex. You can have repeat counts on fields. You can have repeat counts on parenthesized substrings. And, when you reach the end of the format the I/O system just goes back to the beginning and starts over. Oh yeah, you can have loops within I/O statements. The whole mess is much more clever than the one in C, much easier to mess up. It once let me print 2,000 pages with one character per line. You may have noticed that C++ has tried very hard to get away form using format strings. But, of course, Boost put them back in.

Fortran FORMATs are powerful, and clever. So clever that they are hard to use. Unless you work with them every day you are likely to have to look up the details every time you use them. After the empty pages incident I always tested them on very small test cases before I used them for production work.

I have run into this odd problem several times. I remember having to deal with a search tool (not on the Internet) that wanted you to type in a properly formatted regular expression. If you made an error it would force you to type it in again. No editing capability, no warning that it expected a regular expression, and no tutorial documentation, just a mention of grep. If you did not know what a regular expression was and know how to type one out, oh just off the top of your head, you were screwed. Not to mention that there are lots of different ways to type a regular expression. You have to do it their way, not the way you may have learned it in college. And, of course, how many people know what a regular expression is anyway? Very powerful, very clever, and totally useless.

I've seen the same thing with search tools that require you to type in a valid boolean search expression. But, did not tell you that, and did not tell you what the operators were. I even wrote the back end for a mess like that. Worked great but no one could use it.

You see this kind of thing in changes to user interfaces all the time. Sometimes the change is for the better, like the ribbon in MS Office. On the other hand sometimes the changes don't seem to make any sense at all. Change just to let the designers show off how clever they are.

Last fall I rented a car in the UK. No problem getting in, the clicker worked just like I expected it to.. But, then, we had to figure out how to start the car. No key on the keyring, no ignition switch near the steering. What!? Well, there was a big button labeled "ignition" so we pushed it and nothing happened. Then we looked carefully at the keyring and noticed that it had a little gray box on it, and there was a little hole in the dashboard over there... so we put the little box in the little whole and then pushed the big button and the car started. I never dared pull that little box out of the little hole while the care was running. I sure wanted to. I never could get the radio to work at all.

Again, very clever, I'm sure that keyless ignition is very "cool" or "khol" as they say on the coast. The change seems pointless. What is the reason for replacing the key with a little box? It seems like a change that was made just to make a change. Very clever, but WTF?

Smart people design things that are easy for them to use. They forget that not everyone sees things the same way they do. They forget that people do not share their culture, their training, their recent experience, their field of knowledge. The smartest people in the world may not be able to use your design if it is too clever. You have to be smart enough to design something that is dumb enough for everyone to use. Something that everyone can use.

I had a coworker who once told me that if a program with a GUI interface could not be learned in 10 minutes, 30 minutes tops, of poking around it was not worth learning. I think he was being a bit unreasonable! But I like the goal.

That brings me to Windows 8.1, talk about change for changes sake. I bought my wife a new laptop with Windows 8.1 preloaded. My wife is not a noob and she is not stupid. My wife was a rocket scientist. Really. One of her projects blew up a test stand at Edwards AFB. Some of her stuff has launched commercial payloads into orbit. She has been using computers since she was in high school back in the 70s. She has used DOS, and pretty much every version of Windows since 3.1. She even has time using TSO. Now days she mostly does project management. She manages IT projects and has an amazing record of getting projects done on time and on budget. At work she uses Windows 7 and Office all day long...

After one week of trying to do anything on Windows 8.1 she asked me to replace it with Ubuntu Linux. I tried to talk her out of it. We need at least one Windows machine in the house so that we can update the maps on the GPS. (In this day and age why would anyone support only Windows and iOS?) After a month she demanded that I get Windows 8.1 off of her machine. I was tired of listening to her scream at the laptop so I took it off. It only took about half an hour.

Windows 8.1 looks great. Touch screens are very nice and there are some really nice touch screen interfaces out there, like the ones on everything by Apple and on Android devices. Windows 8.1 is strange just to be strange. If Windows 7 is the best version of Windows ever (in my opinion it is) then Windows 8.1 is a sign that Microsoft has corporate dementia. Hey if corporations can have human rights they must be able to have human diseases. Windows 8.1 is very pretty, and I bet the designers think they are very clever. So clever they have built something that is completely useless.

Mar 5, 2015

Google vs. AT&T vs. TWC

[ Note - I've added some notes but haven't edited the original text. ]

I live near Austin, Texas. In fact I live about a mile outside of its ETJ in Round Rock, Texas (named after a round rock that marks where wagons and cattle can ford the Brushy Creek on the Chisholm Trail). My, don't we love descriptive names around here?

Austin is one of those towns that is currently getting Google gigabit fiber Internet service. We expect, and hope, that Round Rock will also get it just like the suburbs of Kansas City got it after Google rolled out their service in Kansas city. We are very excited about that.

Funny thing, AT&T and Time Warner Cable (TWC) are also very excited about it. Scared out of their minds, shitting down both legs, may be a better description of their reaction.

For years AT&T and TWC were the only game in town when it came to so called high speed Internet access in this area. In some parts of Round Rock AT&T is the only game in town, no cable in those neighborhoods at all. Over time both of these monopolistic companies have provided just enough bandwidth to keep people from rioting in the streets and not one bit per second more.

TWC tried to put a usage cap on their service, but found that the people actually did come out in the streets, and TWC's parking lots, and TWC's lobbies, to protest. TWC dropped the idea of a usage cap like a rotting fish.

AT&T put on a usage cap and told people to take it or leave it. AT&T loves usage caps and overage charges.

Neither company is exactly famous for the quality of their customer service. But, there are distinct differences in their attitudes toward their customers. TWC, in my opinion has always been more progressive than AT&T in their customer service. TWC actually does try to provide customer service. In fact, as a TWC customer I have to admit that I actually like TWC's customer service. (At least most of the time.) I have called them with some weird problems and always, eventually, but usually immediately, gotten a solution.

AT&T's attitude toward customer service is that customers should be served medium rare with a nice chianti, and some fava beans. (I worked for what is now called AT&T for nearly five years. so I know that AT&T really does not respect customers.)

TWC has always offered better speeds than AT&T and seems to offer better prices. AT&T's network cannot support the same speed that TWC's network supports. AT&T uses fiber to the neighborhood and copper telephone wire to the house while TWC use coax to the home and coax or fiber to the neighborhood. You can push more bits through coax than through a pair of twisted copper wires.

I once watched a TWC technician run diagnostics on my cable connection. If I read it correctly their network is capable of delivering many gigabits per second to my home.When you think that using DOCISS 3.0 TWC can move over 300 Mbps downstream by bonding 8 channels. You can see that with their ability to deliver hundreds of channels the total bandwidth available on their network is truly huge.

I watched an AT&T technician do the same test and was told they could get 31 megabits to my house. Megabits from AT&T gigabits from TWC. Maybe the difference in networks explains the difference in their reaction to competition.

When Google started rolling out their service TWC calmly, and very quietly, announced they were going to increase the bandwidth of their Internet service. They described the new service, told people when it would be available and did what they said they would do. They doubled my speed to 100 Mbps at no extra charge and offered me 2 to 3 times that speed for a reasonable, in my opinion, price. That made me happy. It gave me a nice warm feeling toward TWC. Of course, I know they could have done the same thing nearly 20 years ago and chose not to. They chose not to for a simple reason. Like all cable companies TWC makes more money from a cable customer than from an Internet customer. But, the better the Internet connection the less the need for cable service. High speed, low profit, Internet service kills high profit cable service.

AT&T's reaction was very different. AT&T could not just increase their customers bandwidth. Their network will not allow it. To match Google's service AT&T will have to spend almost as much as Google is spending to create an equivalent network. They really do not want to do that. So, what do they do instead? AT&T started advertising GigaPower Internet. I really want to call it GigglePower because their whole reaction makes me want to laugh out loud. They advertised it widely and loudly and with expensive TV adds using local big name performers. But, nobody has seen GigaPower... I can't even verify that it really exists.

You see, you can't get GigaPower Internet service. You can't even get any information about it. I have called AT&T to try to find out if or when it will be available in my area. They will not answer that question. I have asked where it is currently available. They will not say. I have asked people all over Austin if they have it, or can get it. No one has it and no one can get it. As far as I can tell it does not exist except as an advertising campaign designed to slow the uptake of Google's service. Giggle Power indeed.... well almost.

I recently found out there are a few homes somewhere in Austin that have the service, but I can't find out where. If you know where you can get it or when it will be available please let me know. I have, like I said, called and asked. I have looked all over their web site. I can find a list of cities they say will get the service, but nothing about actual installations. I found out that there are real customers out there by doing a search for "GigaPower Sucks". Funny how searches of that form always work.

Oh yeah, one more thing to giggle about. AT&T has slapped a 1TeraByte usage cap on their GigaPower service. Let's see 1 gigabit per second translates to about 100 megabytes per second. (When you figure in protocol overhead it takes about 10 bits to transfer 8 bits, 1 byte, of data.) That comes out to 10,000 seconds, 166.7 minutes, or a grand total of 2.8 hours of full speed usage per month. Note that I said full speed usage. You will usually not use the full speed. One terabyte is a lot of Netflix... But, I have one terabyte on DropBox and I could pretty easily blow through that cap.

[ Note - Turns out the above is wrong... You see, even though they call it "GigaPower" they do not offer gigabit/second service. They top speed they offer is 300 megabits/second. A tad less than one third of the speed implied by the name. Almost false advertising.... Exactly the same top speed that TWC offers. Oh yeah, almost forgot, at 300 megabits you can blow through the AT&T cap in about 9 hours of full speed usage. You should multiply or divide by 3 to get closer to the correct numbers. ]

AT&T takes you for $10 for every 50 Gigabytes you go over their cap. Fifty gigabytes is 8.33 minutes of full speed usage. Another way to think of this is that you get 2.8 hours of use per month and are charged $60/hour for every extra hour you use on a service advertised as being only $70 per month. If you use the service as it is advertised you can wind up owing thousands to AT&T at the end of the month. You can see where they plan to make their money on this "service". Of course, I am assuming they will someday deliver the service. Oddly enough, I know that AT&T can move very fast when it wants to. They can deliver this service. The question is, does AT&T want to?

It sure looks like GigaPower Internet is a service you can't get and if you do get it you can't use it the way you think you should be able to. GigaPower is just one more proof that AT&T execs think that the only things people do on the Internet is read sports trivia and look at porn.

AT&T and TWC have to compete or die. Until they faced competition they had no reason to offer a better service. Customers are paying for the old service. Offering a better service will eat into their cable businesses. And, customers had no other choices. As long as neither company improved their services they could both just sit their and collect money for crappy products and service.

Both companies worked to keep competition at bay. Through lobbying the big telecoms made it illegal for municipalities to build their own networks (which many had started doing) and through other legal and financial dealings they kept the small start ups small. At least they have done that in Texas. As long as they can buy politicians and do other things to prevent competition they were never going to have to change. And that was their goal, make as much money as possible selling a service that didn't interfere with their other businesses, namely cable TV. If that kept the US in the Internet dark ages compared to other first world countries, that was fine with them.

The cost of buying a state legislature is chump change for a company like AT&T. What can I say, most Texas politicians are honest in that once they are bought, they stay bought. So, they are a good buy. (Just look at what Ted Cruz, the senator from Comcast, has to say about net neutrality. Even other right wing conservative tea sips think he is nuts.)

AT&T is slowly rolling out the service they advertise. I can't find out where or when it is being installed. I can't find out which neighborhoods will get it. But, they sure do advertise the hell out of it. The only thing I can find out about it is that it has a service cap and incredibly high overage charges.

TWC can, using DOCSIS 3.0 offer a gigabit Internet service. It might be fairly costly to do, but it can be done on their network. I fully expect that they will eventually do that to stay competitive with Google and AT&T. It will be cheaper for TWC to upgrade their network than for either AT&T or Google. That gives them a small advantage.

The next real question to ask is what these companies are doing about their backbone networks. Getting a gigabit in and out of my home means they need terabit backbones to handle the traffic. Connecting millions of homes with gigabit connections to slower backbones would be like having an eight lane highway for a driveway that dumps you out onto a rutted dirt road. AT&T's usage cap goes a long way toward eliminating the problem for them. No matter how fast their service turns out to be the usage cap is only a few times higher than their DSL usage cap so they won't need a faster backbone.

For all my bashing the two telecoms that I know the best I have not ignored bashing Google because I trust them, or even like them. I have done it because I don't have any experience with them as a telecom.

At least Google has stirred things up by coming in as a serious competitor. By competing with all the big telecoms they are forcing them all to provide better services at lower prices. So no matter what, we the people, win. I think that is a good thing.