Thursday, January 31, 2008

What I'm Playing: Arkanoid DS

I don't know what it is about Arkanoid. I am old enough to remember when retro games were new. I still enjoy playing many of the classics -- Pacman, Scramble, Space Invaders -- for their pure unadulterated-by-story-or-graphics game mechanics. But there are just a few of those old games that I have a real soft spot for.

Arkanoid, DigDug, Mr. Do! ... There is something about these particular games that attracts me. It isn't the game play. Arkanoid is nothing more than Breakout in portrait mode with a nonsensical story and a few extra powerups that drop randomly from above. But that's just it! Those extras give it that bit of character, that twist, that keeps me coming back.

So when I heard they were redoing Arkanoid for the DS, I was torn. It would be my third purchase of Arkanoid (I already had it on the Macintosh and SNES). Besides, Taito's last remake (Dig Dug: Digging Strike) was so awful, the controls so horrendous, I thought my attraction to nostalgic games would be destroyed forever. But still... Arkanoid?

My hesitation was swept away when I learned they were bundling a new peripheral with Arkanoid; a miniature paddle that replicates the original arcade feel. I know it is a toy, I know it is a ploy for my affection, but I'm a sucker. I ordered the bundle immediately.

There's very little I like more than a quirky new gizmo, especially a game gizmo. So the paddle controller put Arkanoid into the "must have" category. And I've got to say it was well worth it. The paddle itself works perfectly. It is small but it has the weight and resistance of the original arcade machines.

But equally important, the game itself is the Arkanoid we know and love. The movement is smooth, the graphics crisp and familiar, the controls tight and comfortable. There are some changes from previous versions I have played: I haven't yet encountered the warp gates from the Revenge of Doh and you start with a barrier at the bottom of the screen that essentially provides three "saves". Mind you, I haven't progressed too far yet, so things may change later.

Also there are a host of customizations possible -- such as different backgrounds, music, graphics, and borders -- that you can "buy" with points you collect from playing.

But essentially Arkanoid on the DS is Arkanoid: batting a puck back and forth knocking out bricks through level after level. So if you are looking for something deep or beyond pure addictive mechanics, this game is not for you. But if you do have a fondness for mindless retro gaming in a shiny wrapper, Arkanoid is well worth it.

I should just mention, Arkanoid is currently a Japanese import. But those -- like myself -- who do not know Japanese don't need to worry. Most of the menus are in English and those that aren't (such as the customizations) are easy to navigate with a little trial and error. The only really tough menus are those for internet play. I haven't figured those out quite yet...

Funny thing is, despite it being the ostensible reason for my purchase, after a day or so I don't use the paddle controller much anymore. I do occasionally plug it in just for the quirky retro experience. But Arkanoid gives you three different control modes: paddle, stylus, and buttons. They all work equally well and I have ended up settling on the buttons (moving with the left/right D-pad) as my favorite. The buttons are at least as intuitive as the paddle and the game is far more portable that way.

With or without the paddle controller, Arkanoid DS is a great game for any Arkanoid fans out there.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Social Networking and Identity Management

A while back Tom Davenport commented on the fact that there seems to be very little "work" in social networking. His point is that despite the fact that adults are accessing sites such as MySpace and FaceBook in increasing numbers -- often from work -- they aren't using the social networking site to do work. They are socializing on work time. Even the most work-related of the social networking sites, LinkedIn, has little to do with a person's current employment and is more focused on finding their next job.

It seems Tom Davenport is not alone in this assessment. The BBC has reported that a number of companies are blocking access to social networking sites to avoid time wasting activities. And in a recent review of web 2.0 technologies in InformationWeek, social networking was listed last in terms of the web 2.0 technologies the companies surveyed considered "important to their business".

I have no argument that current usage of public social networking sites is more social than professional today. However, I am concerned when Davenport (and clearly others, according to the InformationWeek survey) generalize this to imply there is no value in social networking to the corporation. As Tom puts it, "let's agree to keep social networking social. No more prattle about business applications .... 'Hooking up' does not have a business meaning."

The problem is that there is more going on here than just "hooking up". A number of commentators are bemoaning the fact that the MySpace generation is forsaking email for their social networks. But I haven't seen anyone asking why.

Its not for technical capability -- the messaging functionality in MySpace and FaceBook is rather rudimentary when compared with mature email clients. It's not just for "hooking up", because that wouldn't require them to abandon email -- and the story goes that they are using social networking for all communication in place of email, not just socializing.

So, what is it? The faddish aspect of it may play a part. (Which implies that they will go back to email once the fad has run its course.) That could be, but I suspect there is something more. And I think I have figured out what it is.

What attracts people to social networking sites is not the capabilities themselves but the fact that they are associated with an identity they can manage themselves. Not the technical identity management that IT types talk about -- digital certificates, two-factor authentication and such -- but the personal and emotional identity of who you are, what you look like, and what your interests are.

When you leave a message on MySpace, you are not sending it to an abstract mailbox, you are leaving it for someone you "know", someone with a face, a description, likes and dislikes. Similarly, when you receive a message that message is associated with a person and their profile. Now, there are plenty of questions about the truthfulness of those identities -- whether the pictures are really them or they are who they say they are -- but you do know who they purport to be.

So social networking provides both the connectivity (the "hooking up") as well as the self-managed identities that make the connections possible. How does that apply within a corporation? Within the corporation, the connections are not all voluntary -- you connect with some people professionally, some personally, and many you simply have to work with because the job demands it. You also have an identity -- your corporate identity. But that can be surprisingly sparse.

When I first joined the company I now work for, one of the most useful tools I discovered was a service that lets you look up anyone in the company by first name, last name, email address, etc. The application gave basic information like name and address as well as telephone numbers, their manager's name, and other information.

This online equivalent of the white pages proved (and continues to prove) immensely useful. Not, as you might initially think, for finding telephone numbers or email addresses, but for finding out more about the individuals themselves. If someone I don't know sends me mail asking a question, I look them up to find out why they might be asking -- who do they work for and what group do they work in? -- which might help me better frame the answer. Similarly, if someone leaves me voicemail requesting a meeting, I will look them up to find out what city and timezone they are in so we can schedule a concall at a mutually acceptable hour.

But there are significant limitations to this application. It only knows what is in the company's employee database. This is the information the company uses to facilitate my employment. Many of the fields are well-suited to computers but not very meaningful to humans. Fields such as badge number, location code, employee type, job code...

So, for example, although the database can tell you my job class is something like "technical consulting", it really knows nothing about what I actually do. When I started working in the field 26 years ago, my job title was "tech writer 1" (or 2, I don't remember). Now I am something like tech consultant n. (I still can't remember the number.)

For the first couple of years, my official job title was reasonably accurate; I was a technical writer and little else. Since then, my actual job and my official title have strayed farther and farther apart. This is because from an HR perspective, my title or job code is solely to determine my place in the company and my approximate salary range. (I suspect the same is true of most large companies.) As a result, almost everyone I know has both an official job title (as defined by HR) and an unofficial, self-declared title. It is this second title they put on business cards: the one that describes what you do.

Unfortunately, there is no where to record this second title in the employee database. In fact, there is very little information in it that the employee controls. No picture, no job description, no personal information. As a result, as useful as the white pages service is, it barely scratches the surface of the employee's true identity.

Which is why we built a small internal application to merge the basic information from the employee database with self-managed content: a photo, a bio (free-form), links such as home pages, team sites, blogs, or personal web sites, and a list of interests (a browseable folksonomy). Is it full social networking? No, it is bare bones. But it does provide some of the core functions of social networking -- particularly the personal identity management -- that is missing in the corporate environment. It also allows us to take advantage of the two identities -- the personal identity and the official corporate identity, to include linkages to existing connections -- mailing lists, organizational structures, group memberships -- automatically

The result, for us, is not revolutionary, but serendipitous. A number of people have commented -- positively -- on how beneficial it is simply to be able to find a photograph of the people they have spoken to for years, but never met in person. Also, we are seeing a significant number of people actively managing their profile -- to keep the lists of interests and projects they are working on up to date. Something that is very difficult to maintain in the official "skills" databases which insist on specific fields (and values) and do not provide any real self management or self expression.

I am not claiming we have solved the "enterprise 2.0" problem for social networking, but we have found one of the attractors of web 2.0 that can have a direct impact on business processes and effectiveness.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Information Architecture of Warnings

I recently bought a new car which brought me face to face with one of my pet peeves: car owner's manuals.

For many years I wrote technical documentation myself, before becoming an information architect. I know that describing even the simplest process effectively is not an easy task. But, really, there has to be a better way.

There are so many problems with owner's manuals -- particularly car guides -- it is hard to know where to begin. But almost all of the issues emanate from a single critical flaw; the desire or requirement to document all known issues essentially makes even the most basic information impossible to find or absorb.

Looking at it from a purely statistical perspective:
  • The owner's manual for my new car has 384 pages.
  • The first 83 pages (ignoring the 24 pages of front material such as copyrights, table of contents, preface, etc) contain information supposedly necessary before you drive the car.
  • Of these 83 pages, 36% contain warnings or notices*, in most cases occupying the entire page.
  • The next section, on driving the car, starts with a 3 page summary of basic information, listing step by step procedures for starting, driving, and parking the car. This is followed by 6 full pages of warnings.

The writers of this particular owner's guide should be commended, because they have tried to make it useful. The three page step-by-step summary for driving the car is really quite good. Unfortunately, it is buried deep into the manual (pages 110-112) and overshadowed by double the number of pages of warnings that follows it.

How does this happen? Why aren't the basic operating procedures up front and clearly identifiable? The problem is that long ago the focus shifted away from information to help the owner use their vehicle to listing every conceivable thing they could cause problems. Or to put it more crassly, anything that could result in a lawsuit. This is an example of what could be called the information architecture of litigation avoidance.

How else can you explain statements like the following?

Do not drive the vehicle over or stop the vehicle near flammable materials...
Do not touch the exhaust pipe while the engine is running...
When taking a nap in the vehicle, always turn the engine off...

Now, I am not taking exception to this particular owner's manual. It is really no worse than those of any of the other cars I've owned. As I pointed out, they have even tried to improve it. But the problem is endemic of all car owner's manuals. They cannot escape the ethos of litigation avoidance.

In fact, it is endemic of almost all mechanical goods: VCRs, TVs, cell phones, etc. The difference with cars is the size of the manual. The owner's manual for my new car is 384 pages long. The instructions for the last DVD/VCR recorder I bought is 30 pages. But the recorder has the same problem -- the first two pages are all cautions and "important safety instructions". (Instruction #3: "heed all warnings." Say what?)

One difference with my new car is that they seem to have recognized the problem and tried to work around it. Company lawyers won't let you remove the warnings, so what they did with my new car is attach notes to the car itself in the form of small elasticized tags. There is one for operating the windshield wipers; another for adjusting the clock.

These tags are a creative way to get around the muddle that has been made of the owner's manual. The best is an 18 page quick reference guide that summarizes the basic operation of the vehicle, with almost no sign of warnings or threats in it. (They get away with this by adding a disclaimer on the inside cover explaining that the quick reference guide is not a full description and that "every [car] owner should review the owner's manual... pay special attention to the boxed information in yellow" -- in other words, the warnings.)

Again, kudos to the group that thought this up. Unfortunately, even this good idea is sabotaged by its own success; the tags were obviously so well received they decided that more information needed to be brought to the driver's attention this way. As a result there were no fewer than five separate tags -- most of them two sided! -- attached to knobs and levers in the car when I picked it up. I had no choice but to detach them all and make a pile of them on the passenger seat so I could drive. It wasn't until 4 or 5 days later when I was sorting through all the paper work that I discovered that one of the tags was the quick reference guide.

Providing effective instructional information is difficult. There is no perfect answer for balancing the need to address basic usage and warnings against misuse. Car owner's manuals are perhaps the poster child of how not to do it. Later I'll discuss some other approaches.

* There doesn't seem to be any standard terminology, but almost all manuals distinguish between warnings about actions that might cause personal injury to people and those that cause damage to the product. In the case of the owner's manual, the former are referred to as Cautions and the latter as Notices.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

What I'm Playing: PSP

Over the holidays I bought myself a PSP, the Playstation Portable. I got the new one, the 2000.

We have pretty much every game system available in our house, and then some. Seven consoles at last count, several Game Boys, GBA SPs, and -- the most frequently used -- a Nintendo DS for everyone in the house.

With the DS -- which is in my eyes close to perfect in form, function, and innovation -- I didn't need another handheld. But the PSP had finally met my attraction criteria: 2-3 unique games that I want to play but can't get on any other platform. So I splurged.

And I am not disappointed. I actually don't like the PSP. It is too big, too shiny, too high tech and aloof. Aloof? Yes. Any "portable" device that has a large screen, high sheen, and tons of open buttons with no protection is essentially saying "you can take me out, but don't even think of putting me in your pocket". (And, yes, I think the same applies to the iPhone...)

...But back to my story. I don't like the PSP, but you have to admire the technology. The games look wonderful and move incredibly smoothly. It is impressive they can fit that level of gaming into a small battery-operated device.

But the PSP is essentially a miniature PS2. there is very little difference in the gaming itself. So portability is its primary function. And this is where it is clear why Sony lost out to Nintendo.

There are four key flaws in the PSP, as pretty as it is:
  • Its too big. It can't fit into your pocket. No way, no how.
  • Its too fragile. Everything about it screams be careful. The battery compartment door opens easily, allowing the battery to drop out accidentally; the UMD discs are held in and ejected by a shockingly thin metal framework; the screen has no cover. I could go on. But suffice it to say this is not a machine you can toss around like I do my cell phone, calculator, or DS.
  • The load times are horrendous. 30 seconds or more for a game to load (and this can occur several times through initial startup, main menu, opening sequence, etc.) is just unacceptable. Part of portable gaming is speed -- you don't have to set it up, just take it out and turn it on. But with the PSP, which uses discs instead of memory cards, the load times are a major inhibitor to fun.
  • The built-in speakers stink. For all its technical wizardry, the pinhole speakers on the PSP are barely capable of anything better than telephone quality sound. The sound is tinny and hard to adjust with the small up/down volume buttons. This is not a technical flaw with the games -- they sound great with headphones. But having to play all games with headphones further cuts down on the portability and the play-when-I-want nature of the system.

There are lots of other pros and cons that you could argue about the PSP versus the competition (ahem, cough, DS). But everything else is quibbling.

I am still happy I bought it. I can finally play LocoRoco and the "other" Katamari game. But it will never replace my DS and I doubt it will ever leave the house...

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Web 2.0, Process, and Multidimensionality

Some people seem to have taken my recent post on web 2.0 and the lack of process to imply that I was criticizing web 2.0 technologies. Far from it. I was simply making an observation, which -- if you dig a little deeper --actually demonstrates a flaw in the traditional approach to software development, particularly corporate software.

The lack of process in web 2.0 technologies can hardly be seen as a negative considering how successful they have been on the internet. It may cause problems for corporations trying to understand how to use them inside the firewall. But that is exactly why -- in many cases -- they are as successful as they are.

Schachter has said that he created to manage his own bookmarks. I believe it was Thomas Vander Wal who suggested that "refindability" for the individual is what drives contributions to the service. However, if it were simply supporting individual bookmarks, the service would not be even a hundredth as interesting as it is. What makes interesting is the ability to look across a vast union of bookmarks from friends and strangers to see patterns, learn something new, or build something different.

It is this openness, this lack of adherence to a single purpose, that provides the inherent power behind many web 2.0 technologies. The "crowd" effect.

The consequence is that some new technologies fly, some don't. People try them, experiment to see what they can be used for, and develop patterns of usage. "Best practices" if you like.

Patti Anklam points this out in her comment and suggests this is the pattern that will evolve within corporations as well. However, I am not so optimistic.

The problem is that people's inherent curiosity and tendency to experiment is offset by the corporation's narrow focus on productivity. Corporate IT organizations work very hard to avoid duplication or wasted effort. Any new technology requires a rather lengthy and thorough review and justification. The mantra of "return on investment" (ROI) is used to weed out "needless"or unproductive innovation. A similar ethic affects the individual employees' activities as well.

I have already written about the problems with ROI when evaluating KM technologies and processes. ROI calculations are dependent on existing supply chain processes which are, by definition ("chain"), linear. It is hard to justify an entirely new process, unless it plugs directly into the business's value chain and therefore can have a direct monetary effect. And if you are improving or replacing an existing process, the ROI is calculated only on its impact on that process -- not on any ancillary benefits.

The consequence is that most business applications are designed to be one-dimensional -- focused solely on supporting the one process it is designed for. And a measurable process at that. Any ancillary value is ignored or even deliberately designed out of the product to preserve the focus on the main process. A proposal for new technologies that breed unique usage models not directly tied to business revenue is the essentially dead on arrival.

Even the "all in one" applications that claim to handle a variety of business needs -- such as Microsoft SharePoint and Lotus Notes -- do so in a very one dimensional way. Just as someone with a hammer sees everything as a nail, these applications see all business problems as a single technical issue. In the case of SharePoint, everything is either a list or a document. Yes, the latest version "supports" blogs and wikis, but only in as much as they can be seen as a SharePoint list. So the SharePoint "blog" is wrapped in the same site mechanics and security mechanisms as any other SharePoint entity.

The end result is that the standard business process for designing and/or choosing software is totally antithetical to the multidimensional nature of web 2.0. There is no room for experimentation -- especially the possibility of failure. Which is what causes so many problems for IT folk when they consider adopting web 2.0 within the firewall. What business process does it support? How do we measure success if there is no primary usage? If its true value can only be seen when it is used by large numbers of people, how do you pilot it?

The fact is that current business practices are so bent on performance and efficiency, there is no room for the serendipitous discovery that forms a key foundation of many web 2.0 technologies. As much as I would like to think they could be implemented and allowed to grow organically within the corporate firewall, there are too many forces that will stunt their growth or try to judge them before they develop sufficiently. In the short term, web 2.0 within the firewall is most likely to be successful only where there is an avid and sufficiently powerful advocate willing to take the chance and deflect any questions about value and cost.