Barnes & Noble Security Question Error Message Mocks You, Your Loved Ones

bn_security_question I finally bought a Barnes & Noble membership today. Despite almost always buying my books on the Amazon, (a site I much prefer referring to with the definite article “the” intact because it sounds cooler), I occasionally will pick one up from B&N if I really want a book that. day. I was buying $55 or so in books, with one being a bestseller which means 40% off, so I was looking at just over $10 off with a membership. $15 for a membership, sure, whatever.

In trying to link my new account from the store with an online account, it prompts for a security question. I select “mother’s middle name” since things like “what’s your favorite restaurant?” are ridiculously inane as I’ll almost *certainly* forget what I entered, which will promptly be followed by feelings of wanting to stab someone. And then I enter ma’s middle name: marie. Nevermind that the security answer is CaSe SeNsItIvE, (because, clearly, I should also be forced to remember if I proper-cased my answer) it goes ahead and tells me:
bn_error_message

Great. Now Barnes & Noble is calling me a liar AND insulting my mother. Swimming performance there, kids. [Really, the error message reads as follows: Your Security Answer is not formatted properly. A Security Answer must be 6–15 characters long, spaces allowed. Remember that Security Answers are case sensitive (i.e., "Dickens" is not the same as "dickens").]

The moral of the story? Don’t enforce ridiculous limitations on a security question if the user’s correct answer might violate those limitations. And don’t insult your customer’s mothers. (CrunchGear blogged about this too, some two weeks ago.)

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Posted in: Design, Rants

50 Tips To A User Friendly Website

I posted about the Designing Interactive usability blog a few months back. Josh Walsh at D-I has compiled a nice list of 50 tips to a user-friendly website that you should definitely check out.

I agree with almost all of them, like Clicking on the logo should take you to the home page—this has become a convention most people expect on a given site, along with highlighting your current location in the navigation bar. There are a few, however, that I might nitpick, such as always underline links, except some navigational cases (unless he means either on hover or the regular state; I note quietly that the links on his blog are text-decoration:none and only underline on hover).

Either way, it’s a great, quick read with some things to always keep in mind when building a website, so take a look and subscribe.

50 Tips to A User-Friendly Website | Designing Interactive

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Posted in: Cool Stuff, Design

Google’s AJAX-powered Search Results Break Keyword Tracking

why_does_google_hate_america

Our beloved web analytics tool Clicky blogged about a pretty crucial SEO & analytics issue today: Google is rolling people over to a new AJAX-powered search, that pushes query strings AFTER a hash mark. So: http://www.google.com/search?q=what’s+my+referrer becomes: http://www.google.com/#q=what’s+my+referrer

The problem with this is that browsers don’t send anything after the hash mark (this thing: #) in their referrer string, since they’re used for named anchors. Since analytic tools use the referrer string to parse search keywords, this breaks that functionality for anyone on the “new” Google. Nightmare. It’s as if they’re effectively “commenting out” the rest of the query string from the referrer string–dark pool, that. Learn more about the ramifications here after the jump.

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Posted in: Rants, Tech News

Easy Tip: Tame Your Facebook Feed with Facebook Friend Lists

facebook_friend_list_feeds

In my review of Filttr, I mentioned that Facebook features some comprehensive friend sorting and grouping tricks that Twitter sorely lacks. But the feature is only slightly obvious, so I’m going to show you an equally obvious quick tutorial on the quick way to get a reasonable Facebook feed of People You Actually Care About, and setting that as your home page, to differentiate from People You Met At That Party That One Time or That One Girl (or Guy) You Shouldn’t Have Hooked Up With Who Keeps Posting Creepy Profile Pictures Of Themselves But Blocking Them Would Only Make Things Worse.

This is really simple: When you first log into Facebook, click the down arrow next to Live Feed. Next to Friend List Feeds, click Edit Feed, click Make New List, name it something cool, and start typing the names of people you really care about. Easy. (You can also manage all of this from the Friends page, from the top nav.)

Now, if you access Facebook via a bookmark, or through the Bookmarks Toolbar, you can click on the same arrow, right click on the Friend Feed, and use that for your new bookmark.

To be fair, this feature has been around since August 2008. Disturbingly, they broke the permalink functionality about two months ago, which drove me absolutely insane because it happened to be about three weeks into having changed my primary bookmark to the Friend List Feed. Facebook Support told me that they knew it was an issue and that they were working to resolve it and it looks as if it’s finally been restored, so you can now make the first thing you see when you log into Facebook the feed of people you care about. Or your “Keeping My Enemies Closer” list. Whatever.

(Bonus: You can also use Friend Lists to send blanket messages to groups of friends. To do this, just start typing the Friend List name when composing a message.)

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Posted in: How To

Nerd License Plates: The Cars of Synapse Studios

Nerd License Plates
Here at The Studios, we tend to keep things a little nerdy. Which is why we reimburse our employees for have a geek-based customized license plate every year.

I think we’re doing pretty well. Here, we happened to park such that it laid out thusly: SUDO RM RF CHILLAX CTRL Z. Naturally, CTRL Z has different ramifications in Linux, so relaxing might just be the last thing you do if you made a mistake, but I digress.

(My plate is CTRL Z, an idea I got when looking down at my shirt and thinking how ironic this will be if I get in an accident.)

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Posted in: Announcements

Cut Through The Twitter Crap with Filttr: A Quick Review

app-shotJust today I was bemoaning the lack of any capacity to filter Tweets from people I want to follow… but don’t want to hear that much from. There are plenty of people I follow because they’re occasionally interesting and I like to keep a peripheral awareness of things in their communities… but some of these people tend to tweet a LOT. Facebook offers you a way to customize your feeds, both by specifying which individuals you want to hear more or less from, and which types of updates you want to hear about.

The problem with following these people is that, while they keep things interesting, they sometimes drone out the people I care most about.

Enter Filttr. Filttr is a clever tool that grabs your twitter timeline (as your home page is called) and applies some algorithmic magic (the best sort of magic, we always say) to show you tweets it thinks you’ll be more interested in.

Filttr offers you the ability to add whitelist and blacklist keywords, which I don’t find particularly useful, since “blacklisting” any particular word or phrase is a bit strange to me (since, without context, how do you know if you’re really not interested, unless you just want to “mute” a particular topic for a bit) but it also offers the ability to rank individuals. So I’ve gone ahead and put a few of my friends on “less” and a couple others on “more” and Filtrr’s timeline is showing me a compressed version of the regular timeline, without all the crap. You can still view hidden tweets, but they’re compressed and cleaned up.

I’ve already suggested that they do a better job aggregating filtered tweets, since they still take up one “row” worth of space, but they’re on the right track here. Further, Filttr threads replies when a friend is replying to someone who had tweeted at them. This is a REALLY nice feature because it gives you context right there. I don’t particularly mind following through an interesting looking reply to see the other side of a conversation, but this is just a nice feature.

You can also establish groups of friends, much like you can do on Facebook, to only see a timeline of a certain subset of the users you follow. This is another useful feature that I’m glad someone else has bolted on to Twitter.

Filttr also offers a free Adobe AIR application to show the feed on your desktop. The app is new and a bit buggy: Scrolling is slow and can spike CPU usage, the app can’t be properly minimized to the system tray, and there are absolutely no options which they say was related to their effort to keep things as lightweight as possible. The app is lightweight, but I’d like to be able to configure a few things, and the lack of even a minimize button is a little strange to me.

When someone builds what is, to me, such an obvious feature for Twitter, it always piques my interest. There’s essentially nothing stopping Twitter from offering the exact same featureset. In fact, I’d expect them to add at least a few of these features. This brings about the argument of the platform versus the provider—many people wondered what would happen with Facebook’s third-party developers, since Facebook’s applications sometimes had direct competition in third-party apps. Thus far, they’ve been able to co-exist, but a third-party app will always be at a disadvantage if the platform decides to start delivering the same applications that the provider is offering. I’ll save the rest of my arguments on that for another post.

For now, try Filttr. It requires you to change the way you do things a bit, but there are some compelling reasons to give it a shot. What do you think?

Filttr (Blog Post) via Techcrunch

Posted in: Cool Stuff, Reviews

Ridiculous CAPTCHA Is Ridiculous, Requires Character Map

So we’ve all seen our fair share of ridiculous CAPTCHAs. I’ve seen ones that require you to only enter the letters with the cats on them, or I’ve seen near undiscernable ones. And if you’ve ever listened to the audio CAPTCHA provided by Google, it’s like the disembodied voice of Satan himself beckoning you to discern exactly which numbers need entering, if only you’ll denounce your Lord. Spoken backwards. It’s ridiculous.

So imagine my shock when Ticketmaster provided me with the following:

catpcha

That’s right. A “vulgar fraction: seven eights.” Not wanting to shrink from a challenge, I pulled up Character Map and found U+21E: ⅞. So obscure it has no alt keystroke. Beat that with a stick, spammers.

(ReCAPTCHA, which provided this CAPTCHA, helps digitize books by providing OCR-unreadable words as one of the two words. If you get the known word right, it uses your entry for the unknown word to help them correct the mistakes in their books. The more people that validate an OCR “unreadable” word, the higher the confidence, until it’s accepted as accurate. But I’m guessing not many people dug up Seven Eighths for this one. :-)

Posted in: Cool Stuff

Trusting In The Cloud: A Call For Post-Mortem As Facebook Loses Notification Settings

notification_settingsI first read about Facebook having lost some users’ notification settings on TechCrunch four days ago. This was worrisome to me, but I got sick over the weekend and didn’t have a chance to write about it. Then I got my very own email from Facebook telling me the same: they’ve lost my notification settings and if I’d be so kind as to reset them, and that they apologized for the inconvenience.

Facebook needs to publish a public post-mortem on this, as soon as humanly possible. When any data disappears from the cloud, no matter how innocuous, it calls into consideration serious questions of trust and competence. I’ve trusted Facebook for a long time. The engineers who have built it have done an amazing job at making sure things scale brilliantly, at cobbling together various pieces of technology and contributing their own back to the community to make the site highly available and without many of the horrible growing pains MySpace experienced, when Tom would send a message telling everyone bulletins will be down and to please not email him.

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Posted in: Rants

Trusting In The Cloud: The Fallout When Web 2.0 Apps Disappear

I Want Sandy is a small but useful “personal email assistant”—a proactive time management and reminder system that was built to work for you and intelligently help you manage your time. It’s offered for free and it’s one of many time management-type web 2.0 solutions available. Yesterday, its creator Rael Dornfest announced that he would be shuttering the site entirely in two weeks, as Twitter had hired him and purchased the intellectual property to the site. There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth on the Get Satisfaction forum post he made, essentially decrying that he’s left his user base out in the cold. And people aren’t happy.

There are so many web 2.0 applications out there that building a following and reaching a point where it makes any financial sense at all to keep the site open and available and to keep actively developing the site is a difficult challenge. It’s not helped at all by the fact that a site can grow beyond a regular simple hosting account to requiring an entire dedicated server, or even two or more in a load-balanced configuration. This problem is compounded when sometimes that growth milestone can be hit without the dollars backing it up. And yet, this decision wasn’t a financial one.

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Posted in: Rants

Lunascape Multi-Rendering-Engine Browser Review: Verdict—Three Trick Pony

lunascape Lunascape is a new browser that allows you to switch rendering engines on-the-fly. Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Google Chrome/Apple Safari all use different rendering engines and JavaScript engines to display your pretty web pages to you. This is the root cause of browser incompatibility issues—different engines interpret things (like web “standards”) differently and so you see pages display differently. This is the bane of a lot of developers, as we have to fight the many, many quirks that abound when we use certain parts of the DOM or certain JavaScript or CSS tricks. For a lot more on these issues, QuirksMode is a great resource.

Lunascape presents an interesting product, though one that’s only in the Alpha stage, so I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot of things evolve from them. As a developer, I have Firefox, Internet Explorer and Google Chrome all installed and at the ready. It’s pretty simple, though a bit annoying, to boot up IE to make sure a page renders properly, even though we develop under Firefox.  (There are FF extensions that make this a simple right-click affair, however.) Lunascape simplifies the process a bit by allowing you to switch a tab’s rendering engine just with a right-click. And it works, for sure.

But I begin to question the utility of a browser that lets me switch rendering engines, but provides me with very few debugging tools or console access. We develop under Firefox because of things like the Web Developer extension and Firebug. These superb debugging tools let us delve into the DOM and help us identify our many AJAX transgressions. Without these tools, though, the workflow isn’t improved enough to justify a switch from just running the browsers separately.

Now, Lunascape currently supports IE extensions, so perhaps Firefox extension support is on the horizon… but this seems like something that could be very difficult to accomplish, given that XUL (which powers Firefox and the window chrome surrounding it) is a part of Gecko that exists a bit existentially to the site being rendered: Though, if Lunascape itself is XUL-powered, then that would help considerably.

Even still, the appeal just isn’t there for me. Lunascape clearly is betting on its three-trick-pony concept, but that only appeals to developers who know what a rendering engine is. Firefox is a considerably better browsing option for regular end users, so they’re left needing to improve the value proposition for developers and to give us a reason to switch. And they haven’t done that yet. One way they could start is by offering advanced debugging tools, better if they’re rendering engine-specific. Another might be to allow for regression testing in IE: Allowing us to render in older IE engines, like how IETester works.

For now, I plan on leaving this in the Alpha bin it came in and working with FF 3, Chrome/Safari and IE, side-by-side.

See also: TechCrunch & Lifehacker‘s coverage. (The latter, whose screenshot we borrowed.)

Posted in: Development, Reviews