Archive for July, 2008

Nix Xobni, Taglocity Rocks!

Sunday, July 13th, 2008

Xobni Panel from OutlookI have been using a couple of Outlook plug-ins over the past few months. Xobni, which is rated by some as a must-have (see for example, Xobni: The Super Plugin For Outlook) and the somewhat more retiring Taglocity from Terazen Technology (www.taglocity.com).

They both claim Web 2.0 credentials, but for me Xobni represents what’s bad about Web 2.0 hype while Taglocity roles up its sleeves and changes your life.

On the right is a screenshot from Xobni. I haven’t broken the news to my wife as yet, but she is apparently the 12th most important person in my life (email wise). I still haven’t found a way to see who is number one, but that is the least of my problems.

Don’t like the colour scheme? Tough. Shades of orange, red and purple are here to stay, at least in the current version. However, I guess my biggest issue is that it just doesn’t solve any real problems for me. It has a fast email search, but so does the Vista desktop. It will show me the conversations with a contact, but I am used to just clicking on From column in Outlook to do that. Maybe I haven’t tried hard enough, but I just cannot find anything that it does that makes it a must-have in my book. In fact I had uninstalled it last week and only reinstalled it to get the screenshot shown.

Taglocity, by comparison, I find eminently useful. It has a very unassuming presence in the Outlook user interface, just a tool bar (which Xobni seems to disable during installtion) and a tag line at the bottom of email windows.

Taglocity Toolbar (new window)

 The point of Taglocity is to allow you to have threaded conversations with other people, whether they are using Taglocity or not. So if you tag an email and send it to a client, their reply comes back already tagged. Also, Taglocity integrates its tags with Outlook categories, so all of the relevant tools that already exist within Outlook automatically work with the tags.

And there’s more. Taglocity allows me to share my tags (and even my emails if I want) with friends or colleagues. I just create a group on the Taglocity site and invite people to join it. This makes it pretty valuable as a piece of groupware, especially in virtual teams. For example, colleagues of mine at the Intranet Benchmarking Forum are experimenting with Taglocity using a set of around 60 shared tags and so far the results are pretty encouraging.

Taglocity is currently in its version 2.0 beta but seems fairly stable. The plug-in and associated account are still free, but personally I would have no hesitation in paying a reasonable charge for the services offered.

Just off to unintall Xobni (again)…

Paying tax the fun way!

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008

Well, not exactly. While the UK’s beloved HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) has come a long way with its online services, they seemed to have stopped short of providing a good user experience.

The problem appears to be that us technologists are very enthusiastic about deciding exactly what constitutes a user error, and punishing transgressors appropriately for them. So, for example, let’s consider the following example: 

Error message repremanding user for failing to make a choice when only one option is displayed

Users do this all the time. There is no choice to be made and the empty radio button does not provide an adequate visual cue that something needs to be done. The Next button was enabled, so being as bad a user as the next when it isn’t my own design I clicked on it and received the ticking-off you see above. I find it very hard to believe that it is really necessary to force the user to make a selection, but disabling the Next button would be an obvious alternative to dealing with a user error. That would require client-side scripting but an equally acceptable alternative would be to select the first item listed by default. But the biggest failing is the lack of empathy that designer of this interaction is suffering from. How does he or she think the customer (taxpayers are customers, right?) is going to react to receiving an error message that appears to deliberately intended to cause frustration?

But there’s more. On the same site, but in a different form, users are required to enter the cash equivalent for tax purposes of a company-supplied car. For this purpose, they are invited to visit a web page that does the calcuation and then to enter the result into the form. It’s a bit clunky, but that is not the only problem. Here is the calculator result:

Page showing cash equivalent of car with a comma as the thousands separator

Notice the comma pound sign and the comma? Trying to copy and paste these figures – from the tool that HMRC recommends – causes a message like this:

Error message stating that the input field must be numeric (it contains a comma output by the calulator)

The really galling thing here is that it is very much easier to write code to ignore unwanted commas than it is to complain about it and force users to put it right. And that really is the smoking gun in most of the empathy-deficient cases I see: the designer has become fixated on handling the error rather than working around it in the interests of good user experience. Sigh.