Monthly Archives: September 2010

Why statues weep

I have written articles for a range of different magazines and periodicals over the years. Many of the articles were related to software, but by no means all. A long-forgotten article I wrote for UK-based The Skeptic magazine some time back in the 1990s recently resurfaced when I was asked for permission to include it in a ‘best of’ compilation of 21 years of the magazine. Sucker that I am for seeing my name in print, I jumped at the chance.

The article ‘Myths of Secret Powers’ combines my long term interests in martial arts and skepticism and discusses whether the martial arts are able to unlock mystical secret powers unknown to western science  (executive summary: no). I am flattered that my name appears in print alongside many of the great and good in the skeptical movement, including: Richard  Wiseman; Susan Blackmore; Chris French; Ray Hyman and interviews with magician Paul Daniels and writer, broadcaster and ‘national treasure’ Stephen Fry. Other articles in the book cover a wide range of subjects, including:

  • Cryptozoology.
  • False memories.
  • The predictions of Nostradamus.
  • the Turin Shroud.
  • Alien abductions.
  • Alternative medicine.

There is much to interest anyone who thinks there is merit in taking a rational, evidence-based approach to understanding the world we live in. It is certainly a refreshing tonic to the tidal wave of woolly thinking foisted on us by a credulous and lazy media.

You can purchase the book from Philosphy Press or through Amazon.

First impressions count

Imagine you are on a blind date. You’ve heard great things about how funny and intelligent your date is and they are certainly very attractive. But it isn’t going well. They just sit there, staring at you with glassy eyes. Nothing you say gets more than a nod or a shake of the head. Maybe they are just shy, but you are never going to find out about their hidden depths if you climb out of the toilet window and run off into the night after twenty minutes.

Now imagine you have downloaded some new software. You have high expectations and your credit card to hand. But you just can’t figure out how to get started. It just sits there, a blank canvas. Totally inscrutable. Offering no clue as to what you should do next. How long would you click buttons and examine the menus before you gave up and downloaded a competing product. Two minutes perhaps? Competing products are only a few clicks away, after all.

As developers we spend months or years lovingly crafting our products. This makes it very hard for us to see them with the same eyes as potential customers. But those first few minutes are crucial for converting a download into a sale. Give the user some pointers on what to do first: show a set-up wizard, quick start guide or tutorial when the application first runs; populate the application with sample data; show hint text or images in the GUI (e.g. grey “start by typing your email here” text in the background of an edit field). If they feel they are making some progress within those first few minutes they are much more likely to buy. It really isn’t difficult to do, and yet it will probably have a bigger effect on your conversion rate than adding a complex feature that may take weeks or months to write.

I remember reading about usability problems with one of the early wordprocessor packages. Users weren’t used to wordprocessors and many just sat there, not knowing what to do. The solution was simple – to show a flashing cursor at the top of the page as a cue that this is where text would appear when they started typing. Usability improvements are usually simple in retrospect. But this apparently trivial change made a big difference to the initial experience.

How good a job are you doing at engaging users in those crucial first few minutes? Are they hitting the ground running, or just hitting a brick wall? Are you sure? Try comparing your download to conversion ratio to industry averages. Better still, do some testing. Find a few people in your target market that haven’t used your software before and watch them try to use it. Don’t help them, no matter how much you want to. It is often a painful experience, but I have yet to speak to anyone who has tried it and didn’t find it incredibly useful. Remember, you only get one chance to make a good first impression.

This article was also published as a guest post in the upload.com newsletter.

I’m a millionaire!

Well, not in pounds or dollars.  But, according to WordPress.com and to my considerable surprise, this blog has now had over a million impressions since I started it, 3 and a bit years ago.

OK, I know Joel Spolsky or Jeff Atwood probably wouldn’t get out of  bed for a meagre million impressions, but I still couldn’t resist crowing about it.

As you can see in the graph below the traffic is very uneven, dominated by a few posts that made it on to the front page of social news sites.

In fact over 40% of the total impressions come from just 5 (2%) of the posts:

Post Impressions
The software awards scam 234,909
10 things non-technical users don’t understand about your software 55,291
Lessons learned from 13 failed software products 51,676
Your harddrive *will* fail – it’s just a question of when 47,505
Where I program 47,075

Here are a few things I have learnt along the way:

  • As with many things in life, persistence is the key.
  • Choose your audience and write for that audience.
  • Pick a realistic posting schedule and try to stick to it.
  • Find your own voice.
  • The titles of posts are important.
  • Don’t expect lots of clickthroughs from social media sites to translate to lots of subscribers.
  • Get your posts proof read (thanks Claire!).
  • I am lousy at predicting how much interest a particular blog post will generate.
  • Don’t blog about blogging.
  • Be prepared to break the rules from time to time.

Although time is sometimes scarce for blogging I have lots of ideas for future blog posts. But if there is anything you would particularly like to see on this blog, please leave a comment.