Q: What’s the point of FAQs?

A: Last week Justin Searls had a series of tweets using the #HonestFAQ hashtag. This one, in particular, got me thinking:

As a newly-minted marking pro, my first thought was “yeah, that’s true.” Most prospective users or customers will not read through the entirety of your documentation just to see if they want to play around with your product or not. FAQs can be an excellent rhetorical device for preempting reasons to not sign up. Twenty five years of world wide web use has taught us to look first for FAQs, so there’s a quick success when the answers are there.

But I also started thinking about FAQs I’ve written over the years. Mostly, they were in my first professional job. I was doing a lot of desktop support, so I put together some FAQ entries to head off some of the questions that I regularly was asked (or expected to be asked). The goal was to let people handle their own easy problems so that I could focus on the harder problems for them.

The more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that FAQs (particularly the non-marketing ones) are indicators of a bad user experience. This may be due to technical issues, documentation, or something else. But if the platonic ideal of software or a service includes the fact that everything is self-evident, then there’s no other conclusion.

This makes FAQs good, not bad, as they serve as a guide post for what needs to be fixed from the user perspective. The ability to preemptively write good FAQs means you’re thinking like your users. The earlier in the process you start doing that, the fewer FAQs you may need to write.

Crowdfunding academic research?

A few months ago, the Lafayette Journal & Courier ran a story about Purdue University turning to crowdfunding Zika research. Funding sources in higher ed are special. Grants from federal and other agencies require the submission of sometimes lengthy proposals. The approval process is slow and bureaucratic. Private sector funding can indirectly bias fields of study (why would a company fund a study that is expected to be bad for the company?) or at least lead to accusations of bias.

There are benefits to a crowdfunding model for academic research. Getting the public involved in the process means they’re interested, which is good for scientific literacy. Crowdfunding can be a powerful tool for raising a large amount of money.

On the other hand, we already have a crowdfunding model for research: the tax-supported National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, etc. Basic research generally lacks the pizzaz to attract large amounts of crowdfunding, but it is a key foundation for higher-level research.

As the article pointed out, a crowdfunding pitch on the heels of a major fundraising campaign is a bit of a sour note. But overall, using crowdfunding to augment research is an appealing idea. I just worry about the day that researchers become dependent on it.

How gamification can change our habits

A while back, a friend posted the following tweet:

Sleeping in the buff means you don’t get Fitbit credit for the steps taken to clean up dog piss in the wee hours of the morning.

I laughed at first, but then I thought about it. Gamification changes how we behave: I certainly walk a lot more since I started counting my steps on my phone, for example. Adding small rewards and leveling up is used both in games but also to promote desired behavior in “serious” situations.

So what will long-term gamification side effects look like? Will people who normally sleep naked start sleeping with socks on so they can wear their FitBit? Will they instead buy a Jawbone Up that they can wear on their ankle?

Fourth Amendment protection and your computer

Back in January, I wrote an article for Opensource.com arguing that judges need to be educated on open source licensing. A recent decision from the Eastern District of Virginia makes it clear that the judiciary needs to better understand technology in general. Before I get into the details of the case, I want to make it clear that I tend to be very pro-defendant on the 4th-8th Amendments. I don’t see them as helping the guilty go free (although that is certainly a side effect in some cases), but as preventing the persecution of the innocent.

The defendant in this case is accused of downloading child pornography, which makes him a pretty unsympathetic defendant. Perhaps the heinous nature of his alleged crime weighed on the mind of the judge when he said people have no expectation of privacy on their home computers. Specifically:

Now, it seems unreasonable to think that a computer connected to the Web is immune from invasion. Indeed, the opposite holds true: in today’s digital world, it appears to be a virtual certainty that computers accessing the Internet can – and eventually will – be hacked.

As a matter of fact, that’s a valid statement. It’s good security advice. As a matter of law, that’s a terrible reason to conclude that a warrant was not needed. Homes are broken into every day, and yet the courts have generally ruled that an expectation of privacy exists in the home.

The judge drew an analogy to Minnesota v. Carter, in which the Supreme Court ruled that a police officer peering through broken blinds did not constitute a violation of the Fourth Amendment. I find that analogy to be flawed. In this case, it’s more like the officers entered through a broken window and began looking through drawers. Discovering the contents of a computer requires more than just a passing glance, but instead at least some measure of active effort.

What got less discussion is the Sixth Amendment issue. Access to the computer was made possible by an exploit in Tor that the FBI made use of. The defendant asked for the source code, which the the judge refused:

The Government declined to furnish the source code of the exploit due to its immateriality and for reasons of security. The Government argues that reviewing the exploit, which takes advantage of a weakness in the Tor network, would expose the entire NIT program and render it useless as a tool to track the transmission of contraband via the Internet. SA Alfin testified that he had no need to learn or study the exploit, as the exploit does not produce any information but rather unlocks the door to the information secured via the NIT. The defense claims it needs the exploit to determine whether the FBI closed and re-locked the door after obtaining Defendant’s information via the NIT. Yet, the defense lacks evidentiary support for such a need.

It’s a bit of a Catch-22 for the defense. They need evidence to get the evidence they need? I’m open to the argument that the exploit here is not a witness per se, making the Sixth Amendment argument here a little weak, but as a general trend, the “black boxes” used by the government must be subject to scrutiny if we are to have a just justice system.

It’s particularly obnoxious since unauthorized access to a computer by non-law-enforcement has been punished rather severely at times. If a citizen can get 10 years in jail for something, it stands to reason the government should have some accountability when undertaking the same action.

I have seen nothing that suggests the judge wrote this decision out of malice or incompetence. He probably felt that he was making the correct decision. But those who make noise about the “government taking our rights away” would be better served paying attention to the papercut cases like this instead of the boogeyman narratives.

The easy answer here is “don’t download child pornography.” While that’s good advice, it does nothing to protect the innocent from malicious prosecution. Hopefully this will be overturned on appeal.

Book review: The Effortless Experience

Anyone who has ever had to call a customer service center has at least one story of an unpleasant experience. While some companies have poor customer service because they won’t invest in it, no company sets out to intentionally provide terrible customer service. Companies that try to provide good service and fail do so because they focus on the wrong things.

That’s the basic premise of The Effortless Experience, a 2013 book by Matthew Dixon, Nick Toman, and Rick Delisi. Based on extensive research from both customer and service organization perspective, The Effortless Experience challenges common assumptions about what the customer wants and how to provide it.

Companies like Amazon and Zappos (which is owned by Amazon) have made a name for themselves by providing excellent customer service. Other companies have had high profile stories of above-and-beyond customer service. Companies in competitive areas try to distinguish themselves by providing service that delights the customer. Research shows this is of little benefit.

Increasing customer loyalty doesn’t do much to keep them around. Decreasing customer disloyalty should be the ultimate goal. Disloyalty is decreased by reducing the customer’s effort. This isn’t necessarily their exertion, which is how much work they actually have to do, but the perception of that work.

The ultimate goal of any customer service interaction is to get something done as quickly and painlessly as possible. This could be changing a cell phone plan, configuring email, or ordering a part. In The Effortless Experience, the authors describe how to move toward that goal. They include the results of surveys and actual implementations from organizations that have shifted to a focus on effort.

Dixon and his coauthors give usable guidance for assessing your organization’s performance and moving to a culture that focuses on effort. This includes advice for non-call-center interactions. It’s a quick read with a lot of great content. Like many books of this type, The Effortless Experience describes what should be common knowledge. I strongly recommend it for anyone who provides service to customers.


When your product isn’t yours anymore

If you pay attention to Twitter at all, you heard about last week’s news that they’d be rolling out algorithmically-curated timelines. This caused a great deal of consternation among heavy users. The real-time, linear (excluding retweets) nature of Twitter is a key feature of the service, especially in the weather and news communities. Potentially breaking this, in the same way that Facebook decides which updates you’ll see and when, takes away much of the value for many users.

The #RIPTwitter hashtag caught on. Founder and CEO Jack Dorsey was quick to try to reassure users.

My initial thought was “I suspect Jack‘s perception of what is ‘Twitter-y’ has diverged from the users’.” I don’t know Jack (hush!), so I can’t say for sure, but the changes that have been announced sure suggest it. That’s not to say that Twitter must do what the users want. For one, it’s a free service. For two, users don’t always know what they want. For three, Twitter’s growth was flat in the last quarter of 2015 and the stock has been dropping sharply.

At some point,when you have a popular product, its no longer yours. The user community owns it, even if they pay nothing. That’s the mark of a successful project, but it can also be frustrating. You want to take the product in one direction, and your users refuse to let you. Twitter already alienated much of the developer community that helped it grow in the early years. Who knows, maybe alienating the user community is the best thing that could happen to it. Maybe Jack will steal his Twitter back.

Full disclosure: I own a small number of shares of Twitter. I regret this every time I check my portfolio.

Book review: Go Set A Watchman

To Kill a Mockingbird has been one of my favorite books since the first time I read it in high school. The movie adaptation starring Gregory Peck is a favorite as well. I always thought it was a shame that Harper Lee only published the one book, but I respected her decision not to turn out uninspired works just to make money. When it was first announced that a new novel was going to be released, I was thrilled. Then I found out that the circumstances were suspect at best.

Concerned that Harper Lee was being taken advantage of, I decided not to purchase the book. But when I was at the library a few weeks ago and noticed several copies on the shelf, I couldn’t help but check it out.

Let’s be clear here: Mockingbird is a better book than Go Set A Watchman. Although Watchman was written first, I don’t think it could survive without being preceded by Mockingbird. Mockingbird is why you care about the characters in Watchman, and I found that I did care very deeply about them.

Watchman is the story of an adult Scout, who has gone off to New York and become a career woman. When she returns to her childhood home, she’s struck by the way racism pervades Maycomb. Being away from it has caused her to lose her desensitization. The frog is out of the pot. Scout, being young and wordly, is passionate about righting all the wrongs. Meanwhile, even those who largely agree with her advise moderation.

I had heard long before I read the book that Atticus, the heroic Atticus, was racist. I was expecting the stereotypical southern racist, but that wasn’t the case. Atticus’s racism is a more nuanced, almost well-intentioned racism that you can almost start to agree with until you suddenly remember that it is still racism.

There are a few plot details that would allow one to argue that Mockingbird and Watchman aren’t in the same universe, but that does a disservice to the story. The Atticus of the 1930s and the Atticus of the 1950s are the same man, but Scout has changed. I think most people can identify with the idea of seeing faults in their parents as adults that they were totally blind to as kids.

This is where Watchman shines. It’s not going to become an American classic, but it is much more thought-provoking. In Mockingbird, the line between good and bad is largely clear. Not so in Watchman, and it forces the reader to consider not only the abstract concepts of race, but how to address racism in the real world. Is it right to burn down all the injustice in a sweeping blaze of righteous indignation, or is it better to slowly work to help those who can be helped and let the rest fade away? And if it’s better to work slowly, is that a position that can only be held by the privileged while the oppressed are forced to endure more oppression?

There’s no doubt that To Kill a Mockingbird is a better book: artistically, commercially, and politically. But Go Set a Watchman is an important follow-on, and I’m glad it has seen the light of day. I only hope that Harper Lee really does feel the same way.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens


This post contains spoilers. If you’re not fortunate enough to have seen this movie in the first month after its release, please stop reading now.

I’ve loved “Star Wars” for many, many years, as I’m sure my ones of readers have as well. On New Year’s Day, my wife and I finally got the chance to go see “The Force Awakens”. I had been hearing a lot of good things about it in the first few weeks after its release, but I was nervous.

When “The Phantom Menace” was released, I wasn’t old enough to drive. My mom was gracious enough to take my friend Erik and me to the Georgetown Drive-In on opening night. We had to get there very early in order to ensure we had a spot. In the hours between our arrival and sunset, we spent a lot of time running around: Erik with a blaster and I with a light saber. Finally it was dark enough for the movie to begin. The place was packed, so it had been a little loud, but once those opening words came on the screen, everyone was quiet. We all held our breath for just a moment, and then the music started. On the first note, there was such a cheer as I’ve never heard.

I was pretty stoked to watch the movie, but over the course of the next few days, I was less and less thrilled. What the hell is a “midichlorian”? Did we have to see so much of Jar-Jar? I saw “Attack of the Clones” in the theater not long after it came out, but I wasn’t thrilled. Mostly what I remember is rain and Hayden Christensen’s terrible acting. I never bothered to go see “Revenge of the Sith”. I still haven’t seen it all the way through.

So yeah, the prequels? I’d rather they just never existed.

Shifting gears, I’ve been a Star Trek fan even longer than I’ve been a Star Wars fan. I have a TNG hoodie with a comm badge and captain’s pips. When the Star Trek reboot came out, I went and watched it with friends. It was a very entertaining movie, but I didn’t quite feel like a Star Trek movie. There are so many stories to tell in that universe, so destroying decades of canon seemed like the wrong move.

So yeah, J.J. Abrams? Not big on his space movies.

I tell you all of this to explain why I was really apprehensive going into “The Force Awakens”. I had nothing to fear. When it ended, my first words were “holy shit that was a Star Wars movie!”

And yes, there are a lot of similar plot elements (though usually with a twist) to “A New Hope”. I’ve seen a fair amount of complaint about that. “Too much fan service,” they say. Well, yes. For one, history repeating itself is kind of A Thing™. Secondly, for the reasons above, Abrams et al had to regain the trust of the fan base. “Trust us,” the movie says. “See how we respect what you love? Let’s ease into this and the next two movies will show you what we can do together!”

Personally, I found the cast to be incredible and the story telling to be better than the originals. It has some self-awareness, which makes for some great jokes. Most of the criticism I’ve read seems to be of the “let’s hate on it because we’re cool” variety, which Matty Granger has addressed quite well.

I may try to get another viewing in before it leaves theaters, but I’m definitely excited for Episodes 8 and 9.

Upgrading to Fedora 23 and some meaningless torrent stats

Since Fedora 23 was released yesterday, I went ahead and upgraded my desktop over lunch. The process was mostly painless. I followed the instructions for using dnf in Fedora Magazine, but hit a small snag: a few of the packages blocked on requirements. So I removed an old kernel-devel package and gstreamer-plugins-ugly. But I still got this:

package kf5-kdesu-5.15.0-2.fc23.x86_64 requires kf5-filesystem >= 5.15.0, but none of the providers can be installed.

That’s not great, because you can’t remove that package without also removing KDE Plasma. Taking the –best off of the dnf invocation fixed it, without any weird upgrade issues (the –best option supposedly cancels the download if a package can’t be upgraded, but everything seems good after the fact).

Since I don’t have any great tales of technical prowess to share, I thought I’d comment on the torrents. Measuring usage of an open source operating system is a really tricky thing, so I thought I might see what the torrents tell us. Keep in mind that torrents are probably a terrible way of measuring popularity, too. I’m just going to assume that most people who torrent ISOs are only torrenting the ones they actually use (instead of me, where I torrent several just to be a good citizen).

Here’s my seeding ratios for Fedora 22:

Flavor i686 x86_64
KDE 16.1 32.9
Security 8.02 13.6
Workstation 24.8 31.2
Server 10.3 15

The “ratio ratio” as I call it is a comparison of seeding ratios between the two main architectures:

Flavor x86_64:i686
KDE 2.04
Security 1.70
Workstation 1.26
Server 1.46

So what does all of this tell us? Apart from “absolutely nothing!”, it says that KDE users install on x86_64 way more than on i686. Workstation is still really popular on 32-bit machines and overall. The first 32 hours of seeding for Fedora 23 show similar patterns. Yay?

Learning by mashing buttons

I’ve become somewhat of a Slack expert at work (or at least that’s the perception) On the technical side, we’ve been using it for over a year, and you’d think everyone would have a pretty similar degree of familiarity. That turns out not to be the case.

I don’t think I’m particularly smart, but I tend to be pretty good at knowing how to configure various applications. This isn’t some skill honed by years of meticulous study. On the contrary, I learn my way around by smashing keys until something interesting happens.

One of the first things I do when I get a new device or application is to go poking around in all of the menus looking for fun settings to change. When my family got our first computer, I nearly bricked it a few times playing with different settings. I’m much more careful now, but I’m still unwilling to leave settings unexplored.

Occasionally I’ll be reminded that not everyone does this, and it confuses me. Where’s the fun if you don’t play with all the settings to see what happens?