Deadprogrammer’s Hierarchy of Web Needs

I recently received a phone call from a recruiter. He wanted to lure me away to some “big company” that still had “small company feel” to participate in a “redesign of a major website”. He felt like all of these things, as well as “a well stocked kitchen” were big selling points.

I am a veteran of many website redesigns, major and minor. I’ve come to dread the word “redesign” because very frequently it meant taking a perfectly good website and making it significantly worse, and then through major struggles making it marginally beter. In the past I wrote a rather bloated article titled “The Russian Tea Room Syndrome” about this. Today I would like to write a bit more about this, as this topic rarely leaves my mind and my life.

Earlier in my career, I had very little influence over the redesign process, but this is changing. This is the primary reason why my job title has the shameful word “Architect” in it: I write code and configure servers, but I want my say in strategery as well.

So, Michael, you might ask, what is the problem with redesigns? Aren’t redesigns about making websites better? Well, many redesigns suffer from not following IBM’s famous motto.

IBM has one of the best corporate mottos ever: CRUSH and DESTROY. Uh, I mean THINK. They even give out props with the word “THINK” on it and publish THINK magazine.

Many redesigns happen simply as a knee jerk reaction: oh, look company X is doing Y and using Z. When you sit in a meeting and somebody is describing a redesign purely in terms of things other people do, you are likely in trouble. No thinking is involved at all.

But sometimes it’s the type of thinking that is going on that is the problem. You have to think about the relative importance of things.

I have a picture by famous graffitti artist Banksy hanging on my wall. It is a metaphor about true and false importance.

In 1943 a Brooklyn College professor Abraham Maslow outlined what is now known as Maslow’s Hierarchy: a pyramid that ranks human needs. It looks like prior to him nobody really gave a lot of thought to relative importance of pooping and morality. Well, maybe a little – there’s a Russian idiom for a person of untrustworthy nature that originated during WWI when soldiers relieved themselves in rows, next to specially dug trenches: “I would not take a dump next to this person”. Also see “I hope they serve beer in hell

Here’s Maslow’s pyramid in all of its glory:

I decided I’d come up with the hierarchy of web needs:

standard adherence: strict XHTML, CSS, etc

choice of technology: language, CMS, OS, cloud/servers, etc

other features: widgets, games, microformats

multimedia: video, podcasts, interactive flash

design: graphical elements, typography, pleasing layout

semantic web: metadata, tagging

usability: text size, image size, logical layout, uncluttered interface, site name/urls, browser support

community features: comments, ratings, feeds

googliness: search, speed, security

content qualities: usefulness, interest, freshness, uniqueness

content: text, images, links

In my opinion unsuccesful redesigns happen when people start from the wrong end of the pyramid (always skipping the first step: I’m yet to meet anybody with power who thinks about these things are important).

I will expand on this in my next post.

Entrepreneurship Heros I

To celebrate my 2 year anniversary of working for Fast Company and Inc magazines, I decided to write 2 posts about entrepreneurship. Here’s the first one.

The owner of super awesome HMS Beekeeper store recently complained that people told her that she should close “because it’s ‘buy nothing day'”. I’m pretty sure that these people would have enjoyed my childhood in the Soviet Union, where most days were ‘buy nothing day’. Soviet Union was the kind of place where reporting your father to the secret police could make you a national hero, while engaging in business activity was a crime.

I was brought up in an environment where 99% of non-governmental commercial activity was outright illegal, and the allowed kind was considered extremely unwholesome by association. Just about any item produced by the Soviet industry would be stamped with a price in order to discourage illegal arbitrage, like this condom, for example:

These days outside of California it’s hard to imagine a society that considers this much commercial activity evil, but when I was a kid, any schoolchild caught engaging in commercial activity of any sort could get in a lot of trouble. Personal entrepreneurship was literally a criminal activity. This kind of an environment tended to produce excellent jet fighters, but pretty crummy condoms.

In America entrepreneurs get a lot of respect (outside of government and hippie circles), and they tend to start early. You always read about the likes of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates having business ventures in high school and college.

My former co-worker told me a story about his daughter who got into trouble for her entrepreneurial activities in 2nd grade. She and her friend decided to cash in on the popularity of Webkinz. They went into the business of selling hand-drawn counterfeit Webkinz trading cards. Surprisingly they were able to sell a good deal of those. The trouble came when the teachers noticed that they were engaged in market segmentation and variable pricing (which is a topic of one of my favorite Joel on Software articles). You see, the girls were selling cards at a discount to the popular kids and at inflated prices to unpopular ones.

This episode only increases my dislike of schoolteachers. If I were in their place I would have praised the girls for entrepreneurship, and explained to them that it’s copyright infringement that is problematic, while market segmentation is perfectly kosher, even if a little sneaky. I’d teach them about premium vs generic branding and how some people happily pay a lot more for identical items in different packaging.

Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming

“[A] solid how-to book…For amateur dream researchers, this is a must.”
WHOLE EARTH REVIEW
This book goes far beyond the confines of pop dream psychology, establishing a scientifically researched framework for using lucid dreaming–that is, consciously influencing the outcome of your dreams. Based on Dr. Stephen LaBerge’s extensive laboratory work at Stanford University mapping mind/body relationships during the dream state, as well as the teachings of Tibetan dream yogis and the work of other scientists, including German psycholgist Paul Tholey, this practical workbook will show you how to use your dreams to: Solve problems; Gain greater confidence; improve creativity, and more.

Architedventure or Advenitecture

What is this?

Right, it is the Flatiron building undergoing some renovations. The people who used protective net as an advertising board for H&M were apparently forced to remove it.

If you read my blog (as I suspect that you really don’t), you might know that Flatiron building is very special for me. So as soon as I herd that the workers are doing demolition work and throwing pieces of deteriorating facade into a dumpster I went to investigate. Well, actually not right away, but when I got the chance, but that does not matter. The dumpster was there, filled to the brim. Surprisingly enough my haul was exactly the same as of my fellow dumpster divers:

two pieces of facade (I think I know where they are from – the curvy thing is a part of a column and the square thing is a blocky decoration, similar to the one which helped the hero of “From Time to Time” to climb the building).

Two bricks, with markings M& LW and Bourne. These might be modern, but looks like they were a part of the Flatiron, and that’s all that matters.

Psyops, The Non-Virtual Popunder and Stuff

You know those little subscription cards that fall out of magazines? They annoy the hell out of everybody. And apparently that’s why they are one of the most expensive and efficient advertising options in the print world. Same as a pop under ads online. You see, the reason they are put in magazines you already have a subscription for is the fact that they are very likely to fall out on a train, in a doctor’s waiting room, at the office or wherever good times are had. Kind of like psyop planes dropping leaflets on the enemy positions.

But here’s the interesting part. The damned cards have a name. They are called “blow-in cards”. They are named so because apparently they are placed into magazines by puffs of compressed air. They have even more annoying comrades – the bind-in cards that are as it’s clear from the name bound together with magazine pages. The thicker bind-in cards are kind of like permanent bookmarks making it hard to find any pages with actual information on them. I often go through a magazine ripping those out before reading.

Another interesting thing about blow-in technology is the way they make the card stay in place during the binding process. Most blow-in machines (how’s that for a profession – blow-in machine operator?) use static tacking. A special device creates a charge on the card and on the page so that they’ll stick. O’reilly books have this special binding that doesn’t work too well with regular blow-in machines, so people were complaining about blow-in cards that unintentionally became bind-ins. An interesting engineering solution followed:

With the old system, the cards were hit with a static charge to keep them in place as the cards moved through the binding machine. Sometimes, the card would lose the charge before getting all the way though. This new machine uses a miniscule bit of glycerin that holds the card in place longer and then fully disappears.

By the way, I have a whole collection of those O’reilly blow-in cards on the wall of my cubicle because they have those cool colophons with animals on them. I think Wrox books should have used baseball cards of developers for that purpose. With hilarious stats. That’s not a bad idea actually. Maybe they would have been better off if they had my marketing genius on their side. Still, with the money they saved on photographer’s services I am surprised that they went belly up.

In Linebarger’s “Psychological Warfare” I’ve read about sets of leaflets used by the Allies during WWII that had numbers on them. German kids collected those as stamps because of that (any collector will understand a desire to have the complete series). Those leaflets turned out to be extremely efficient because many adult Germans with collector kids had a full set in their house where they could safely study them.

This real world pop under kind of reminded me of banners that are being referred to as “Godzilla”, “gonzo” and “skyscraper” banners and popups. Some even have flash movies with this technology.

Nautical Nonsense

This ad for a new jellyfish exhibit at Brooklyn Aquarium was on the side of a bus (and the bus was moving when I took the picture). I guess the blurb applies not only to jellyfish, but also to the graphic designer who masterfully placed the Pepsi logo in that corner.

Escape From Petland

It’s well known that Disney is well known for popularizing certain animals. It actually benefits some of these animals, as for instance many kids would not let their fathers hunt “Bambi”. But if there is a potential for the animal to become a pet, then it’s a different story.

My wife told me that there was a huge demand for spotted dogs after “1001 Dalmatians” hit the big screen. And apparently Dalmatians are not low maintenance pets. So after a while there was a whole surplus of abandoned Dalmatians in dog shelters.

And now requests for the “Finding Nemo fish” are driving a pet store employee posting in nuts. Remember, saltwater fish are a maintenance nightmare (as the owners of the Amazing Netscape Fishcam which was once near the Tent of Doom would definitely tell you).

In any case, there will me a massive number of clown fish deaths in the following months. This is doubly ironic because in the cartoon the fish wants to escape from an aquarium.