Friday, February 29, 2008

I *might* just have to buy an iPhone

I've been waiting patiently for years to be able to pay my tab via a tabletop or wireless device, and this is one ingenious step closer!

Order Starbucks With Your iPhone

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Effective and Usable Validation for Long Term Data Entry and Workflow

This topic sure sounds droll! But I've been thinking about it a lot as we've dealt with these issues at my company, so I thought I'd do a brain dump.

In large applications that store complex data, validation of form input is likely going to be more involved than just checking the fields' existence and format on submit. Many times the data comes in in bits and pieces, over a long period of time, and is entered by several different users, before the form is "complete". The validation rules may also have too many exceptions and special cases to really enforce them. This probably comes back to poor process and application design, but it certainly exists and you may just have to live with it. However, some type of validation needs to be in place to maintain data integrity - whether its for reporting, data mining, or simple assurance that the information in the database is accurate.

One approach for validating this "long term" data entry is to attack it in stages or tiers, with each progressive stage becoming more stringent, until the final step at which everything must be complete before (figuratively) closing the file. Here's an example.

Stage 1 - Alerting the user to data that is needed.
Non obtrusive alerts serve to bring the user's attention to parts of the form that they "may want to fill out" before moving to the next screen. This warning should be clear in its purpose, to essentially let them know, "at this stage in the process, you usually want these fields to be complete". This might be some type of border, icon or label combination that indicates important fields. The warnings will only apply to this particular step of the workflow. There may also be different levels of warnings - such as "information alert", then "warning", then "critical error" - with different rules as to whether or not the workflow can continue with their presence. If future steps in the workflow are dependent on the existence of certain data, that would usually mean that it's a "critical error".

Step 2 - Warning the user that data is needed.
Now the user is attempting to move forward in the workflow, and data is still missing. When the user hits the button to send the form on to the next stage in the Workflow, they will see a validation warning - a pop up window or screen - that says "these fields should be filled out before moving to the next stage". The missing fields should also be highlighted in such a way that the user can easily see what's missing, perhaps with an error message next to them. At this point, you may want to prevent them from moving forward until the data is complete, or allow them after they acknowledge the warning. This depends on the situation and the stage in the process. The warnings usually only apply to the current section in the workflow, and may also follow a scale of severity.

Step 3 - Preflight before closure
When the file is approaching closure, as the final step, there is a preflight stage, where a list of exceptions or warnings is presented to the user before closing the file. Up until now, the only warnings shown apply to the current step in workflow. Now the preflight "issues list" will show exceptions from every stage, organized by stage, and ideally give the user a single, simple place to fix these issues (such as a custom wizard/form that walks them through completing each field step by step) before proceeding. As with the other errors, the preflight will show exceptions on a severity scale, from "information" to "warning" to "critical error". You can decide how to handle each level of warning, but typically warnings "should" be fixed, and "critical errors" will prevent the file from closing.

Step 4 - Post close audit
Depending on your business rules, files may have closed with information still missing. Therefore, you will want to have an audit report (really, it should be available at any step in the process) that will show each exception allowing errors or missing data to be easily found and corrected. You may also wish to display this information with the individual users at each step in the workflow, so that you can tell who sent this file to the next stage with incomplete data.

A good working example of this type of validation is consumer tax preparation software such as TurboTax. Building flexibility into the data entry process, and allowing the user to move forward even with incomplete data can dramatically improve usability - required fields are the user's enemy - but there need to be checks and balances to ensure data integrity is maintained.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Business Card Printing Round-Up

Business cards. Everyone needs em. And now with online printers and digital printing's coming of age, everyone offers them. So where's the best place to get them? Often with printing, the selection is driven by budget. Many businesses will order cards from whoever offers the cheapest price.

However, there are often substantial differences between all the millions of printers out there, and some businesses are discriminating about quality, especially when it comes to their stationery. They may demand special print methods, colors, and paper. Large businesses want someone who can produce their business cards reliably, cost effectively and consistently - in large volumes, with frequent orders, and a simple ordering process (online) that doesn't burden the HR department who typically handles business card orders. Then there are plenty of small time side workers, independent contractors, or individuals who need business cards, not very many, not very often, not very expensive, but want something better than micro-perf cards they can print at home on their inkjet.

Ultimately, the printer you select for business cards really depends on your business's situation. I always have directed clients and companies I've worked with to various printers depending on the job. In my current situation, the driver was, as usual, price. Not that my current printer was charging too much. Ok they were. They are good, I use them for a lot of things, but the prices I was getting on business cards was at least double what I was seeing online, and seeing how much of my marketing budget gets eaten by stationery, I was determined to get a lower rate. I had previous discussions with my printer brainstorming how we could produce our business cards more cost effectively. I know that printing is a very competitive business, and I appreciate good work, so I did not want to push them to simply lower their rates.

I asked about their options for shells - that's where you pre print high quantities of templates with logos and other standard marks, and then you just imprint the individual person's contact info on top of it - often with a single color - in smaller batches, reducing the total cost per set. I asked about batch orders - printing several cards at once. I contemplated changing specs (we'd already gone from three to two color), and determined that the best option would be to submit orders in batches.

So I carefully managed my batch orders (time consuming!), sending as many at a time as possible, often with the effect of forcing people to wait longer for their cards than I would want them to - and forcing me to print temporary cards on our laser printer until the orders could be placed. Having worked with batch runs on this job and shells in previous jobs, I have experienced all of their drawbacks, and in today's world, on demand is really a superior option. So my requirements in locating a better business card printer - if there was one to be had - were these.

  • Meet or exceed the quality and appearance of our current cards, so that no one would even notice (or only notice improvement in) the difference in the new cards
  • Closely match the other stationery we have, from other printers
  • Easier ordering process, preferably all online rather than email-and-call-and-email...
  • Pricing low enough that on demand orders were realistic
  • Overall savings on our business card costs
I tried four printers during this process (yes we order that many business cards!), they were:

1) Local Business Printing Franchise who I will not name specifically - I don't want to hurt their reputation, and my experience with them has been no better or worse than a variety of similar printers I've worked with - the pros and cons are the same.

2) - up and coming online printer, their name says it all - fast, quality printing is their promise.

3) - one of the "original' budget online printers, popular and successful - low cost, quality printing is their deal.

4) - another popular online budget printer, who focuses a lot on the consumer market, and boasts some of the lowest prices anywhere

Two other printers that I had on the list for consideration if none of the above worked out were
a) - an online printer specializing in direct mail (that's what I've used them for and they were good), who also offers a few other standard print products
b) - an online printer specializing in standard products at low prices. I've used them for greeting cards and they came out great.

I did not start with these because the options they offered were more limited, and would not allow me to exactly duplicate the specs I was currently working with.

Lastly - there's always the "high end" lithography/engraving/specialty etc printer who will tell you they're happy to do business cards, and the results will be stunning (if it matters) - but you will pay a boat load and they will push you to print large runs and batches to make it more cost effective. They're only an option if money is no object, and ideal if distinctive quality is essential. Better to let them handle your annual report.

My specs were for a quantity of 500, single sided, two or four color (whatever options available), no bleeds (that's where the color goes off the edge of the paper), uncoated matte white cover stock, 100# + in weight or 12-14pt in thickness.

Here are the results:

#1 - Local Business Printer
  • Flexibility in specs
  • Attractive results (the standard by which others were measured)
  • Relationship
  • Expensive
  • Manual ordering process
  • Slow timing

158.50 printing
17.06 shipping and fees (averaged from several orders)

The local printer runs every business card as a custom print job - just as if it were a brochure or a flyer or stationery. I got to pick the inks and papers - we were printing with spot color, which is often a necessity on business cards to get crisp text and intense color, as well as perfect corporate color matching. The paper was a popular stationery stock, in a nice bright white, a heavy 110# cover weight, and smooth finish. I also have a relationship with this printer, so they are never more than a call away, and they "know" me - the paper we use, they have our logo and fonts on file, and we can work together well.

The problem was, their pricing was different for each run, depending on how many different names we ran. It sort of bothers me that their pricing is something of a mystery - perhaps I could figure it out if I crunched the numbers every time, but who has time for that? So I felt in the dark. Every order was charged setup and washup fees, regardless of how many were ordered. Even with my discussions with them about printing in batches, I found that the savings was not substantial in the batch sizes we were printing.

Also, to make their own lives easier, the printer was reproducing the print-ready files I was sending them (I asked them not to, and offered to change the way I was designing the files if necessary, but they seemed to do it anyway) and as we all know, every time that happens there's the chance to introduce errors. None of the errors they introduced made it to print, but it did make me lose some confidence in them, and scrutinize every proof from them in detail. The timing was also slow, both because we had to batch the order, and because they were a typical small printer with probably a single press - maybe two! They would always expedite orders if I requested it, but I think rushing every order can damage the relationship with a printer, and cost you more, so I did not want to do when it was not absolutely necessary.

#2 -
  • Beautiful results
  • Great price
  • Sent overruns
  • Fast turnaround
  • Streamlined, simple, automated ordering process on very nice website
  • Limited paper options.
  • No spot color offered
50.00 printing
12.86 shipping & fees

I had used 48HourPrint for flyers and had good results, so I gave them a shot for business cards. True to the name, the cards came back in 2 days + shipping time, faster than #1 whose typical turnaround was 2 weeks. The results were beautiful, with crisp printing and nice intensity - even from 4 color printing. The paper options were limited to coated only, although a dull option was available so I ordered that. Two of the three recipients raved about the dull coated paper (in comparison to the original cards - the other guy just didn't care because he'd never seen the old ones), but the CEO preferred our original uncoated vellum so that canceled them out! Also the brightness of the paper was noticeably lower than that of our original stock.

Their minimum quantity was twice what I normally order, which is fine since the cost was still low. They also sent overruns, probably 25% worth, at no charge (this is where they print extras by nature of how the art is imposed on a sheet - most printers throw these out, or add a "plus overruns" fee to their pricing and charge you extra for them) . Overruns were not really necessary since I was already ordering more than I needed, but a nice gesture. If the paper had been a little brighter white, I probably would have considered talking our CEO into liking the new paper!

#3 -
  • Offered uncoated paper
  • Can do custom options for paper and color upon request
  • Personal attention
  • Nice results - the ultimate winner
  • Great pricing, low shipping, increased discounts for larger orders
  • UI on website is showing its age
  • Normal turnaround is not as fast as 48HourPrint, although they gave me a free upgrade to 3-day shipping for my first order
49.95 printing
9.95 shipping and fees is very prominent on the web, and for good reason. Although their website looks dated and the UI has not changed in years (meaning it's rather kludgy - but works reliably), they make up for lack of slickness with service. It's unusual to see an online printer that actually tells you the name of the technicians working on your order, to get personal emails from them (and not for problems - just letting you know that they are available if you need them), as well as a follow up call to make sure we were happy with the results. And we were.

The result was the closest of any to the original I wanted to duplicate. I did order four color from them as a first try, and was pretty pleased with the color. I got a quote for using spot color, the cost was more, but still less than what I'm currently paying. I felt like the four color was close enough that I didn't need to pay extra for the spot color. The turnaround was fast, but not quite as fast as 48HourPrint. PrintingForLess does offer rush pricing and shipping in varying degrees, allowing you to conveniently pay exactly what the timing is worth to you. I hear that's actually where they make most of their money - on rush orders. But as a side, since becoming my own "director of marketing" I've all but eliminatated "rush order" from my vocabulary - planning ahead and proactivity are my preferred style!

#4 -
  • Inexpensive
  • Nice color intensity
  • Brightest paper, nicest feel
  • Imperfect Registration
  • Card size is non standard
  • Fees for everything
  • Slower service

42.98 printing (including paper upgrade)
14.45 shipping and fees (including upload and proof fees, which no one else charged)

VistaPrint is another prominent online printer. They target the budget market quite effectively, even offering "free" products (albeit with their name printed all over the back). Their advertised prices are so low it seems too good to be true, and it is. They upcharge you for every little detail: even an automatic PDF proof is $1.99 extra. By the time you're done adding it all up, the price is close to - maybe a bit lower than - the competition. They seem to push users to order with their predesigned templates, which are downright god-awful (ok I'm a snob), and charge you extra per file to upload your own design. Sorry, I'm a real designer here, I do it all myself. They charged extra for non-coated paper as well. Their pricing includes bleeds, but at the cost of reducing the overall cards size by about 1/16" which just bothered me. I'm sure their logic is that most would not notice and it allows them to print bleeds without using extra paper, but I do - especially when I hold it up to other business cards. And I didn't even order bleeds, yet I had to get them trimmed to the smaller size anyway.

On the upside, the card itself looked quite nice, with the brightest, heaviest paper of all of the printers (even better than the original). But the registration was ever so slightly off, giving the text that "halo" effect which, at a distance, made it look less than sharp. Not bad enough to complain about, but noticeable. Their turnaround was slow considering they are an online printer, many of whom make speed their value proposition - their "priority" turnaround was 7 days. Bottom line? I would use them for personal postcards or business cards even, for occasions or holiday printing, etc... But not for business. Also, although this order went smoothly, in the past I have contacted their customer service with quality issues and received no response whatsoever. This does not give me a lot of confidence in trusting them with all of my business cards - something that should be a simple non-issue.

In closing, PrintingForLess won out because they were superior on most points. Pricing, turnaround, quality and service were all excellent. I also liked that they gave me the option of doing custom jobs, which most online printers won't do. 48HourPrint was a close second, held back only by their limited paper options. My local printer came in third, because their price was just too high, despite their good quality. VistaPrint came in last, because I just do not feel they are a professional caliber printer - even if they are inexpensive.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Usability is not Accessibility (all the time)

I have had many discussions, seen many talks, read many blog posts about Usability...that all somehow devolve to issues of Accessibilty. While the two are intertwined in some ways, they are two very different sets of problems, and it bothers me that so many people seem to confuse them.

Case In Point: "AJAX Usability". You hear a lot about how AJAX is unusable. Sure, in the wrong hands, such a powerful tool can yield unusable results. But AJAX came about as a usability SOLUTION. Eliminating screen refreshes, intuitive drag and drop interfaces, natural-movement animation, subtle highlight effects, editing in place, live validation, sorting and filtering ... They were all created to give smoother, better cues and more responsive interfaces to the user. The most usable sites on the web today use AJAX heavily (hello, 37Signals!).

On the other hand, AJAX Accessibility issues are a different can of worms: The fact that a lot of the visual cues are useless if you can't see them, that JavaScript support is essential, that navigating AJAX interfaces with a keyboard can be a nightmare. The biggest cross-over issue I can think of is back button breakage, which is becoming less and less of an issue as usability techniques are developed to prevent its necessity, while simulatenously AJAX libraries are improving to cope with the back button. (And wasn't it just a few years ago that usability gurus admonished that no one knew about the back button? Funny how things change!)

Why does the difference matter? Because you have to understand the problem before you can solve it. It's possible for someone to be a usability expert, but not know much at all about accessibility. And vice versa - I have seen some really accessible sites with terrible usability. Perhaps the need for accessibility trumps any argument for usability, but not always. That's where progressive enhancement comes in to play. (Screen readers also need to step up to the plate and deal with RIAs, because that's where the web is going.)

So maybe in dealing with one you often have to deal with the other, but hey, I'm a web developer, it's my job to obsess over semantics :)

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Marketing Messages - More Science Than Art?

In my days working in a corporate marketing department, we did a lot of group brainstorming to think about what our marketing messages should be. Headlines, campaign concepts, visuals. I always sort of hated these meetings, because I felt stupefied in them. Which sounds totally wrong because I'm the "creative" type who should love brainstorming and idea generation. And I do. But there was something missing from these brainstorming sessions: basic facts and research. So when it came time to "brainstorm", I felt like we were just pulling ideas out of our ass, and inevitably that led to others shooting down our ass-brained ideas. Not much fun.

I'm not trying to launch into criticism of our process, I'm just pointing out that many times in business, whoever is responsible for marketing is expected to generate these genius ideas that will win over customers and make a so-so company look world class. But they often try to do that with few facts, and little research as a basis.

The more I learn about marketing, the more I study it, the more I come to the realization that brilliant marketing is never achieved without facts, research and testing. Nobody knows it all, no marketer has such a level of intuition that they can create these concepts that will be embraced by millions. The marketer's genius is their ability to distill facts and research into an attractive and compelling message. And even then, in all the huge companies recognized for their marketing, that message is tested and tried and vetted to ensure that it is received well, before it's broadcast to the world. Yes, there is expense involved, but what's more expensive than research? A failed campaign.

Case in point: the horrible SalesGenie Panda Ad run during the SuperBowl vs the always popular Budweiser ads. Who has a better track record? Salesgenie has their CEO writing the ad from his own intuition (according to this article, anyway). No doubt, as CEO of InfoUSA this guy knows something, but apparently not market research. Budweiser spends months testing and their ads are always among the best.