September 28, 2004

Chasm

My current work profile involves a fair bit of evangelising new technologies and features. Selling technology in what is primarily an editorial environment is never easy even at the best of times and it becomes even harder when you have to pitch for things that are new or things have just about left the 'early adopter' stage. The problem is that I often have to face an unbridgeable chasm between the two sides involved - content and technology. I won't get into the details of what actually happens (confidentiality and yada yada), but I will talk about the basic issues like group think, lack of communication and a near-total ignorance of technology.

Even though almost every person involved in the process is responsible for the messy state of affairs, I would stick my neck out and blame the people who manage technology more than the end users - the people who end up using the same technology. It always helps the technology team to have simplistic and well defined briefs in the first place from the content team, but that is almost never present in the first place. This is mostly because content management is still very much an evolving subject and to be very honest there are very few people in the editorial side of things who can visualise workflows, processes and the whole nine yards.

This rot sets in deeper when the technology team put in their own interpretation of things to the proceedings. The end result is that the editorial team gets an application that is stubborn, inflexible and has feature set that the majority of users cannot understand or make use of. In fact this problem has grown to such enormous proportions that it is almost laughable every time I get to read some long winding conversation by geeks and usability experts about the amount of bevel on a button that would make it more visible or easier to click. We spend such a lot of time discussing the insignificant specific at the cost of the greater picture.

This problem kicks you where it really hurts when it comes to evangelising. The editorial, lacking the understanding, is willing to adopt a new feature only if they can rebrand it as some kind of newfangled innovation than as a feature any good product should have. The technology team, who understand technology mostly at the level of specifications, reflexively swats anything that did not originate from them. But why is it so difficult to explain technology to a layman? Why is it that even after people have been given explicit and illustrated instructions, they still cannot seem to get an application as basic as a desktop aggregator running by themselves? Why can't we present an apple as an apple to technologists and editorial people at the same time?

The the irony becomes even more profound when, even in this age of APIs and web services, we still lack simple ways to explain technology to ordinary people. The chasm between the editorial side and the technology side is more or less accurately replicated when it comes to the layman. While most of us are talking about a zillion different ways to achieve the end of autodiscovery, the mother of all syndication standards and other geek-orgasm-evoking feats, the average user is left more and more out of the loop and with it the steep curve of mass adoption grows even more steeper.

A month or so back I was trying to explain to the higher ups what RSS could do and I found myself struggling to break free of very much overused jargon and technical terminology. If I ask all of you who are developing the next generation/iteration of technology to explain, in five simple sentences, your current fascination to the the average surfer, how many of you can do it? What is even more ridiculous is that the latest 'simplest introduction to RSS' article on the web sounds almost like archaic Greek to the average user. There was also the case when someone even wrote to us fuming that we 'chose' to name the specification after a right wing Hindu organisation!

The problem that is the killer is that most of us who design and create interfaces, frameworks and information infrastructure often take the 'I-know-what-you-know-better' approach. When was the last time you ever observed someone renaming a file? Hint: It is not often done in the way you think it is done. We tend to drill down the possible user actions to what we think they will do than to ever look at the things they actually do. The proof of concept for this is the number of times data poisoning happen even in those content management systems which already have a very strict policy on allowed data inputs.

Layers of abstraction are wonderful, provided they are not overused. Interfaces are wonderful when they primarily do useful stuff than to just be cute to the eyes. But how many really did ask for the ice candy look that XP sports or even the semi-transparent menus that the open source zealots drool over? Hell, most users cannot even figure out that the search bar that they see all the time on their screen is not a feature, but an irritating bit of spyware. When was the last time you saw, other than the Google toolbar, an actually useful browser help object? Developers don't often realise that it is not just themselves who have to find what they are developing is cool, it also has to satisfy the average user.

A simple illustration of this problem can be seen in the much talked about Live Bookmarks on Firefox 1.0. Peter Andrews, the lead developer of Sage, asks "Does Firefox need an integrated heavyweight aggregator if it has an excellent extension mechanism?" My answer is a loud 'NO'. Why would an excellent, lightweight browser want to add more confusion to the 'What-is-RSS' mess? Live Bookmarks is a half baked effort that falls between a bookmark manager and a RSS reader and it ends up being neither. I do not want a frigging rocket launcher rolled into a dishwasher in my browser. That is why I use Firefox with the extensions that I like. Let us please not do an Internet Explorer all over again.

Why is it a terrible mistake to mix up bookmarks with subscriptions is as simple as this. Bookmarks is feature that is used to mark sites or pages or specific articles that you would want to go back to. It is not often associated with content that changes over time. Getting RSS feeds into it would further confuse an already clueless average user. Did anyone ever ask him if he wanted the feature in his bookmarks? Did anyone ask what they thought/knew about RSS? I have and most of them, including even those who have worked in the online sphere for many years, have no idea of what it is. And that is how bad the chasm is.