Did Apple screw up with iOS 6 Maps? You bet they did and they’ve admitted it publicly. But let’s be clear about where the problem is. There are many gaps in the data iOS maps deliver but for many areas, such as the Bay Area where I live, I haven’t noticed any major issues. In fact, I’ve been using the maps app since the iOS 6 dev release and I’ve found the the turn-by-turn directions to be quite well designed.

What’s to like about the iOS 6 Maps design?

Turn-by-turn directions are well designed and if you happen to live in an area that’s well mapped, you might actually start to use them on a regular basis. Some of the things I like about Apple’s turn-by-turn design:

  1. Maps are vector based and render fast
  2. The perspective of the map is easy to read and maximizes your view of upcoming turns
  3. Streets are dynamically flagged as you approach, making them easy to read
  4. The big, bold “highway sign” at the top of the screen clearly tells you the next turn, how far away it is, etc.
  5. Turn-by-turn directions are visible from the lock screen
  6. Voice-over directions are superb. I literally drove from start to end on one trip without ever looking at the screen. The voice prompts are timed so well, that I never felt the stress of wondering if I would miss a turn. I can’t say the same for most other turn-by-turn voice instruction.

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If you live in a major metropolitan area, you may find the maps app works just fine. If you’re in an area where the map data is weak or you’d just rather not risk it, there are plenty of alternative mapping apps that you can use, including Google Maps in your browser. My favorite alternative for turn-by-turn and traffic information is Waze.

I have homeowner’s and car insurance with Allstate. I recently moved and today I decided to head on over to Allstate.com to update my address. The experience was funny enough that I just had to document it here.

Below is a screenshot from my Allstate home page. It’s a section titled My Profile and it shows my name, mailing address and email. Next to this info is a handy link titled Update Profile.

My Allstate Profile

Clicking the Update Profile link takes you to the page below. First, take a moment to appreciate the redundant “help” text on the page. Next, note that there is no option for updating your mailing address. Brilliant.

 Update Allstate Profile

It’s always important to know your audience when creating content, but a common mistake I see time and again (and have been guilty of ) is to believe that sophisticated audiences will not appreciate clear and simple content. This happens a lot in technology. But take a look at this video for the Nest. There’s a lot of sophisticated technology in the Nest and it’s aimed at a fairly sophisticated audience, but Nest spends its time explaining the benefits. The technology fades into the background. As it should.

Whether communicating with potential customers, users or your engineering team, it’s important to remember that all audiences appreciate clear, simple messaging. Don’t create complicated messaging for sophisticated audiences and don’t dumb down your message for the novice. Creating a common understanding is the goal and clarity of message is how you get there.

There are a million lame excuses to NOT make your UI better. Here are 10 of the lamest with contributions from the Twitterverse:

  1. Users have already been trained to do it this (crappy) way.
  2. First, we need consensus.
  3. That’s not technically feasible.
  4. It’s not consistent with the rest of the product. (@madhuprabaker)
  5. But we already coded it this way.
  6. We’re done with that feature.
  7. But I love it!
  8. No one uses that feature anyway. (@surdattack)
  9. That’s not how [competitor x] does it.
  10. That’s hard to do!
More lame excuses:
  1. The devs don’t like it (@paz0r)
  2. The users don’t want that (@MrAlanCooper)
  3. We’ll fix it later (@claushoefele, @jeffcortez)
  4. Fast is better than good (@bradhaynes)
  5. That’s non-trivial.

What are some of the lamest excuses you’ve heard (or used yourself)? Share them in the comments.

Jason Perlow recently wrote and article entitled I’m sick to death of Android. In it, he talks about how he’s been an Android user since the beginning and describes what attracted him to Android.

I have always liked the fundamental concept of Android — an Open Source smartphone and tablet operating system that could be used on a variety of manufacturers devices with varying feature sets that gives consumers the added benefit of choosing exactly what product suits their specific needs.

Android also provides for the additional openness of having 3rd-party App Stores that suit the needs of different types of customers if the Google Android Market (Now Google Play) doesn’t fit the bill.

And of course, there is also the ability for the base OS itself to be modified as well as the ability to side-load applications of your own design for use in vertical markets.

So, what’s wrong with Android?

  • Real people don’t buy abstract concepts like “openness”.
  • Real people don’t respond well to lots of choice.
  • Real people don’t want multiple App Stores to suit their specific need because their specific need is simple — tell me where to go to buy apps.
  • Real people don’t want to “side-load applications” and don’t know what the hell that even means.

Google has been focused on building the “ideal world” according to geeks and geeks said, “Hooray! We like the fundamental concept of open! Open is better than closed! We want to have 3 different App Stores! We want side-loading!” But geeks, I’m afraid, are not real people. Real people buy products that simply work well and they’re busy spending money in Apple’s “closed” App Store. And they’re happy. And there’s nothing abstract about it.

NOTE: I do realize that geeks are people too. Hell, I am one! But they’re not most people. I’m just exercising a little artistic license.

This weekend I’ve been catching up on season two of Downton Abbey (I’ve only just started, so don’t spoil it!). I watched season one on my big screen TV via a Roku box and Netflix, but season two is not available on Netflix or Amazon, so the Roku box was not an option. I remembered that PBS has an iOS app and was happy to discover that I could play season two episodes through the app. I also have an Apple TV connected to the big screen in my living room which meant I could use AirPlay to send the show from my iPhone or iPad to the TV. Problem solved!

I found season two, episode one in the PBS app and streamed it from my iPhone to my Apple TV. Right away I noticed that the quality of the picture was much worse than I had seen with the Roku and wondered if I’d get a better picture through the iPad. On the surface, it didn’t seem like that should make any difference. If it’s the same show, same app, same OS, so the picture should be the same too. But it turned out that, when streamed from the iPad, the picture quality was significantly better. What was going on?

While I don’t know for certain, I’m fairly sure that PBS sends a smaller file to the iPhone than it does to the iPad. Why?  The phone has a small screen, so all the extra data required for high resolution video is unnecessary. Phone users are “on-the-go” and often have slow connections, so a small file will download faster and start playing sooner. In other words, the PBS app has been designed for the “mobile context”. But the mobile context is a myth (be sure to check out Josh Clark’s excellent presentation on the topic). It falls apart as soon as I stream media from my phone to my big screen TV. In my living room I have a wi-fi connection and I don’t care about file size, I just want the best quality media experience I can get.

We can no longer presume that the content accessed through mobile devices will also be viewed on them. With AirPlay, mobile device experiences can just as easily become 10 foot lean-back experiences, negating all your assumptions about display size and bandwidth. Responsive meda strategies will need to get more sophisticated to take this into account.

I recently switched my broadband / cable provider from Comcast to Astound. In general I’ve been happy, but there have been a few hiccups. By far, the most confounding and amusing one is the website registration process.

As a new customer to Astound, if you want to access their “web self care” site,  you need to create a new account. Sounds reasonable so far, right? But take a look at the image below. Have you ever seen a registration form with three password fields? I haven’t. Now, look closer. Notice that one of the fields is called “Registration Password”? What the heck is that??

After some trial and error, I determined I’d need to call customer support — which, by the way, was exactly what I was trying to avoid in the fist place!

My call to support went something like this…

Me: I’m trying to register for “web self care” but it says I need a registration password?

Astound: I’m sorry about that. I can help you. Please verify your name and address.

M: < verifying my name and address >

A: Okay, I’m going to hang up now and call you back on the phone number you gave us when you signed up for service. Then I’ll give you the registration password.

** I shit you not. **

M: Oh… kayyyy… < click >

Phone: RING!!

M: Hello?

A: Hello, Mr. Villamor. Here is your registration password: a s t o u n d, all lower case. (Update: password is now astound1)

** I shit you not. **

M: Thank you. Can ask you a question?

A: Sure.

M: Why on earth do you have a registration password? I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.

A: We do this for your security so that an unauthorized person cannot access your billing information.

** I shit you not. **

M: That makes no sense. If I haven’t registered yet, there’s nothing to protect. Not to mention, I don’t care if someone knows I owe you $96.67. What’s the worst they can do, pay my bill? And by the way, not even banks have registration passwords. Might I recommend that you stop wasting people’s time with this?

A: It’s for your security. Can I help you with anything else?

M: Yes. Can you tell me if I am a character in a Kafka novel?

QR codes are pretty lame. They are usually part of some ill-conceived marketing campaign and can be found on billboards or product packages, looking conspicuously alien. It’s likely that only 1% of the general population knows what the hell a QR code even is and that it’s actually meant as some kind of a convenience for human beings.

QR Code on a Philly Cheesesteak

QR Code on a Philly Cheesesteak

Take a look at the image on the right. Someone in the Johnny Rockets marketing department decided that their customers would be so excited about the new Chicken Philly Cheese Steak that they would download a QR scanner app to their phone, launch the app, snap an image of the code and be amazed that the phone magically took them to… wait for it… www.johnnyrockets.com.

But there may still be hope for the awkward QR code. The key is to find high-value processes that are a big enough pain in the butt that scanning the code is dramatically more efficient than the alternative. In other words, QR codes need real use cases and I think I found a pretty good one.

Electronic bill payment is too hard

Here’s a bill I just got from my garbage collector resource recovery service. This bill appears in my mailbox only 4 times a year, so I’ve never set up e-payments. It’s just too much hassle. But I recently decided to give it a go…

Step 1

Parse the bill to figure out how much I owe and how to pay online. Note that the URL for bill payment is on the return envelope, not on the bill.

Garbage bill

Garbage bill

Steps 2-21

Now it’s time to set up e-pay! I counted a minimum of 20 steps in this process, not including the confirmation page.

e-Bill Pay Setup

e-Bill Pay Setup is over 20 steps

That sucked. How can we make it better?

The process I outlined above is typical for setting up e-bill payments and a typical person might set up well over a dozen of these. What if we could simplify it using QR codes?

During a one-time setup process, you link your credit card or bank account to a centralized bill pay service and install an app on your phone. Next, simply open a bill, any bill, find the QR code and scan. The bill is automatically paid after a simple confirmation of the payment amount. That’s it.

Pay by QR Code

Pay Now appears at the bottom of all of your bills.

Here’s what it might look like on my garbage bill:

Garbage bill with QR code payment

Garbage bill with QR code payment

As you can see, this is a dramatically simpler process than setting up e-billing for each of your accounts. It easily eclipses the cost of opening the app and scanning the code.

The benefits could extend beyond one-time payments. After scanning a code, the app could ask you if you want to eliminate statements by mail, if you want to set up recurring payments, etc. If your credit card expiry date changes or you switch banks, you can update your info in one place for all billers.

Out of the hands of marketers, into the hands of designers

Chips AhoyQR codes may never take off, but if there’s any chance for them they need to be moved out of the hands of marketers and into the hands of designers. We need to find use cases of real value, like removing 20 steps from a bill pay process, not linking you to a promotional web page about Chips Ahoy cookies.

Update

I’m working with Brad Frost to curate a collection of absurd QR codes out in the wild. Help us collect great examples of QR codes gone wrong at wtfqrcodes.com!

This year Chase Health Advance, a medical and dental financing service, decided to update their website to make it “better than ever”. In the process, they created easily the worst Web experience I have had from a professional organization this year, possibly ever. A nifty byproduct of upgrading the site was that they broke automated payments and forced customers to set up payments all over again from scratch. This caused many payments to fail and accounts to go late, mine included. A phone call later, I got the late payments straightened out and let them know that the new site was so bad that I felt embarrassed for them.

I had seriously considered just paying the balance in full rather than put up with the site, but I trudged through the painful new online payment process and got my account set up for recurring payments. Or so I thought. Today I received a statement in the mail informing me that I am 2 months past due. How could this happen? Again?? Upon closer inspection of the e-payment setup process I discovered the problem: the form only asks for checking account number once. Unlike nearly every other electronic payment form, they didn’t provide two account number fields to be checked against each other for accuracy.

Chase asks for checking account number only once. A big mistake.

My payments never went through because I had transposed 2 numbers in the 10 digit string that is my account number. As a result, my account is past due and I now owe $25 in late fees. Could I have been more careful entering my number? Absolutely. But it’s common for users to enter 10 digit account numbers incorrectly. The form should account for this. When asking for a long, complex number like checking account, always have the user type it in twice, the same as they would for a password. That way, transposed numbers are easily discovered, you get paid, and your customers don’t flame you on the Web.

Back when TVs were originally introduced things were pretty simple — you plug it in and start watching. But over the years it’s become an almost comical challenge to watch TV. The introduction of cable boxes, DVRs, and now streaming media (and their associated remotes) have all contributed to an experience that is broken and has been for a long time. The experience is ripe for simplification and I think Apple has the best shot at it. Remember the original iMac commercial (below)? Now imagine it as a commercial for the new Apple TV. There is no step 3.



If you want to get a sense of how complex it is to set up a fairly typical TV configuration, check out the play-by-play of my recent experience switching cable companies below. This was going to be my original post, but it’s about as tedious to read as it was to experience. Still, if you’re interested in how broken the TV experience is, read on…

The ordeal that is cable TV

Last week I got fed up with Comcast and decided to switch to another provider (Astound, if you’re curious). I was essentially getting the same services from the new provider as I got from Comcast, so this should have been a pretty straightforward process.  The experience I will outline below is fairly typical and, in my mind, a fantastic example of why the world needs an honest to goodness TV from Apple.

Cable guy

“Hi, I’m on my way. I got a cable card for your Tivo. To be honest, I don’t now much about these, so I hope you can help me out.”

Me

“I’ve set one up before when the last cable guy didn’t know how. I kinda remember the process.”

Cable guy

“Whew! That’s a relief! See you in a bit.”

I hop on the Web and search for Tivo + Cable Card on Astound. Lots of complaining about how hard it is to set up, how it never got set up, etc. Starting to look grim.

Cable guy

“Knock, knock! It’s the Cable Guy! Let’s set up your Internet first.”

Within 5 minutes, Internet is up and running. All I had to do was unplug and re-plug the power on my AirPort Extreme. Done (and it’s wicked fast!).

Cable guy

“I love this Apple stuff. Never have any problems. Now, here’s the cable card for your Tivo. Show me how this works.”

I plug in the cable card and see this:

Cable Card Config

Cable guy

“That’s funny. Maybe the card isn’t activated. Let me call the service desk.”

Several minutes later, they send a “signal” to the card. We check to see if we get channels. Success!

Cable guy

“I guess that’s it!”

Me

“Yep, I guess so. Thanks!”

I say my goodbyes to the Cable Guy and he drives off. I start using the TV and realize that none of the channels match the guide. Some channels I’m supposed to receive aren’t there, the ones that are there have the wrong names, other channels just come up blank. I decide to call support to troubleshoot.

Support Guy

Support Guy

“I’m sending a signal to your cable card… Did that fix it?”

Me

“No. No it did not.”

Support Guy

Support Guy

“Okay, I’ll send the tech back out to fix this.”

Me

“Oh you mean the guy who doesn’t know anything about Tivo and cable cards? Good idea.”

I head to the Internet to find answers. After searching and clicking and digging for about 10 minutes I find what I’m looking for. Turns out I have to tell the Tivo which cable service I’m using. After giving Tivo the details, I’m presented with this:

It’s downloading program information for about 30 minutes using a 50mb Internet connection. It spends 90% of this time “preparing” — whatever that means.

Okay, now the lineup matches but I have dozens of non-HD channels, shopping channels, foreign language channels, public access channels and empty channels that I don’t want to see. Surely there must be a simple way to get rid of these?

Another search on the Tivo website tells me I can get rid of channels I don’t want, but there’s a catch. I have to remove them ONE-BY-ONE and I can’t see the channel content while removing channels, so I have to continually hop back and forth between watching TV and drilling into the menu to remove channels.

Removing channels from Tivo is a pain in the ass

Removing channels from Tivo is a pain in the ass

At this point, I’ve been setting up my TV service for about 4 hours and it’s still not right but it’s as close as I have the patience to endure. I’m done for now.

Now imagine your average consumer. They would almost certainly have given up as soon as they heard the words “cable card”. It shouldn’t be this hard. How should it work?

  • Plug the TV into the wall
  • Plug the coax cable into the back of the TV
  • Plug the Ethernet cable into the back of the TV (or configure wireless)
  • Turn on the TV and enjoy

I should not have to see standard definition channels when I get those same channels in HD. I should be able to remove channels while I’m watching them, and not have to drill into a menu. I should be able to favorite channels while I’m watching them. I should be able to configure all of my streaming services from a computer, smartphone or tablet so that I don’t have to use the stupid on-screen keyboard on the TV.

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