May 25, 2015

Seeking Anecdotes Regarding "Older" Persons' Use of Web Services

Greetings. I'm seeking anecdotes regarding the use of Web services (e.g. as provided by Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) by "older" users. Keeping in mind that our memories, vision, and other key attributes typically begin to degrade by the time we reach our 20s, I'm not specifying any particular age ranges here.

Please email whatever you can to:

I'm especially interested in any frustrations related to Web services that you might feel -- or have noted with relatives, friends, co-workers, or any other persons -- as you and/or they have inevitably aged.

Particularly relevant stories include age-related experiences regarding what seems to work well and what causes the most problems when you're using these systems, or when you're trying to help others use these systems (either in-person, over the phone, or via various remote desktop environments), and so on.

Experiences of the "elderly" in any aspect and how ever you wish to define this would be especially appreciated. I believe this category to be of critical importance. This rapidly growing group increasingly must deal with Web services to conduct routine affairs (for example, email or other Web-based contacts with relatives or businesses, government communications, and so on.) This is also a group that could benefit greatly from calendar systems, person-to-person chat and video systems, search services as memory aids, and social networking environments (particularly given the social isolation that is so typically part and parcel of advancing age) -- if and only if these persons are able to use these services effectively.

I will treat all details you send as confidential unless you indicate otherwise, but the more details you can provide the more useful your information will be. Ages, background information about physical and mental states, and level of technical familiarity are some of the particularly relevant factors.

Also, information regarding the particular aspects of these services that you or those you assist find particularly problematic, would be very much in focus -- issues with fonts, backgrounds, user interface designs, stability vs. changes in interface and operational models -- and how these users are affected by these and similar issues.

Anyway, you get the idea. Again, please send whatever you feel comfortable with to:

Thanks very much. Take care, all.


Posted by Lauren at 02:52 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 21, 2015

Google+ Drops "Ripples" -- Thumbing Nose at G+'s Most Loyal Users

As much as I admire Google (full disclosure, while I have consulted to them, I'm not currently doing so), for the life of me I cannot understand their fetish not only for killing features that are much loved by significant numbers of users, but so often doing this with little or no warning at all.

So here we go again. In a terse post on G+ today, Google announced that they had immediately dropped support for the Google+ "Ripples" feature. Zero warning. Just POOF.

Granted, if you're not a heavy user of G+ and don't have a lot of followers, you may not have ever even bothered playing with Ripples at all or even known of it. Ripples was always relatively hidden, suggesting the amount of non-love Google felt it deserved.

But for folks like me (I have nearly 400K G+ followers), Ripples was incredibly useful, providing me with a graphical representation of sharing patterns related to my posts -- it was an extremely valuable engagement visualization tool.

So, why did Google kill it now?

Oh, I can wager some guesses. Maybe nobody wanted to devote the fraction of time necessary to maintain it, or perhaps a broader G+ backend redesign made it difficult or impossible to reasonably continue for technical reasons.

Nothing lasts forever.

But in the name of bits, bytes, and Beelzebub, I simply cannot fathom why Google cannot provide some degree of advance warning before disabling features like this. A month? A week? 48 hours? Something?

Even if we grant that Ripples wasn't widely used and large numbers of users won't be affected at Google scale -- these aren't valid excuses for essentially thumbing your nose at some of your most devoted users as if they just don't matter at all.

It's almost as if Google just doesn't want to be bothered unless millions or billions of users are directly impacted.

I've been pushing back against folks claiming that Google is planning to ramp down Google+ -- but Google's attitude toward the services' most devoted evangelists seems downright bizarre, and indeed causes one to ponder this question more deeply.

More than bizarre -- it's simple disrespect. And unfortunately, it's the kind of communications failure that has become all too common with Google.

We'll all live without G+ Ripples. In the relative scheme of things, it's not a big deal.

But its very triviality has the ironic effect of causing one to wonder how users will be treated when the really important issues roll around again.

And at least for someone like me who has enormous admiration and respect for what Google has accomplished, I'm left with a very sour taste in mouth, that I really wish wasn't there.


Posted by Lauren at 01:12 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 16, 2015

European Union (EU) "Right To Be Forgotten" (RTBF) Discussion Video

Greetings. Yesterday (15 May 2015) I hosted a Google+ Hangout discussion regarding the EU's horrendous "Right To Be Forgotten" concept and its ramifications. Video of that discussion is now available.

Special thanks to the participants for an extremely thoughtful hour!


Posted by Lauren at 12:30 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 12, 2015

Why Consumers Hate Us

It's not usually an all-encompassing kind of hate. Nor is it typically some form of "I hate you so much I won't have anything to do with you!" category of hate. And rarely is it really a "fear of evil" model of hate.

No, it's much more of a simmering, situationally specific kind of anger. It's mostly (but by no means exclusively) directed at large Internet technology firms, and by proxy at the technologists (like many of you, and certainly me) who either directly or indirectly create, deploy, influence, or otherwise impact the Web and its services as experienced by ordinary, mostly non-techie consumers -- who increasingly must use our products whether they really want to or not, at the risk of being left far behind.

Perhaps part of the problem is that most technologists -- coders, SREs, managers, and onward along the long tail of associated job descriptions -- often don't need to deal with users' complaints directly. They may see studies and distilled reports, the most common user comments and questions, and other relevant data, but mostly they never interact with ordinary consumers -- ordinary users -- on a one to one basis, except perhaps when trying to assist a concerned friend or relative (which indeed, can be an eye-opening experience as far as that goes).

For better or worse I receive unsolicited queries looking for help every day. Typically these users have tried the formal support channels and forums -- and have either been unsuccessful at finding answers in the former or ridiculed by other persons in the latter. They start searching around and find my name in association with various articles I've written, or my frequent discussion of technical issues on radio and other venues. In desperation they send me emails -- or often they call me directly on the phone.

Often these queries relate one way or another to Google, simply because I've written so much on that topic over the years (and, full disclosure, until quite recently I was consulting to them as well), but Google is by no means the only firm for which these questions pour in.

Obviously, I'm under no obligation to respond to any of these. But it is my pleasure to do so on a gratis basis, because so many of these persons -- yes, actual living human beings every one -- are so desperate for someone to talk to them about the technical issues that we -- the aforementioned technologists -- tend to assume are so obvious, but that seem so utterly impenetrable to so many users.

"Losers." That's the corruption of the word "users" that you hear all too frequently from technical folks when referring to the persons who actually depend on their products and services. It's usually bantered about in half-joking way, but the essential arrogance that it reveals is often all too real.

Sometimes it's just overall disdain for users in general. Sometimes it's disdain for the minority of users (who can still be enormous in absolute numbers at scale) who are deemed not worth bothering with if they can't "keep up" with the designated pace of change, or who have particular special concerns or needs that just seem like too much bother to address, even at the group rather than individual level.

To be sure, supporting millions or even billions of users is no small or inexpensive feat. And the inclination can be strong to treat non-paying users as a "lower class" for support -- even though they may be responsible for bringing in very significant revenue through ads and other mechanisms.

I won't try to catalogue here the long list of insights I've gained from the many discussions I've had with users -- not losers! -- over recent years. But just a few points may give some sense of the overall picture in key respects.

First, much of what we assume is obvious to all users actually is not. There's the old joke about the tech support guy who told a caller they could press any key on their keyboard to proceed. "I can't find the 'any' key!" comes the presumably hilarious reply.

This isn't as far from the truth as one might think. We've been so successful at "hiding" the workings of our applications that many users are completely lost when something goes wrong. You might be surprised how often I've told users to "start their Web browser" and they tell me they don't know what a browser is.

How can this be? Most people care about information and services at sites and pages, not so much the software that display them. They may have shortcuts that bring these sites up directly from their desktops, or they may use app launchers that even further obscure the process. So it shouldn't come as any additional surprise that many users have no clue as to which browser they're running, don't notice if their search bar or omnibox has been hijacked by an "intruding" service without informed permission, and so on.

We forget that most people aren't clairvoyant and may not have 20/20 vision. We pour endless energy into user interface design. But we still end up deploying obscure icons and "hidden" menus, both often as mysterious as the Sphinx, unless one thinks to mouse over the icon (in which case you might get a useful "tooltip" -- or not) or hover over the appropriate secret symbol (or perhaps empty space!) to make an otherwise hidden menu visible.

In the interests of "pretty" interface design and text display, it's become the fashion to render often important text in low contrast fonts that are pretty much a slap in the face of anyone with aging or otherwise declining or limited vision -- and that decline often starts by the time we reach our 20s. Sometimes it seems like UI designers are getting kickbacks from ophthalmologists and aspirin manufacturers.

And when it comes to hardware, users are even more confused and peeved. These are often not inexpensive devices, but forced obsolescence and feature "hobbling" cycles are growing ever shorter.

Smartphone buyers find themselves stuck in short order with devices that can't or don't receive updates, even for important security-related bugs -- often involving security issues that nobody responsible is even willing to proactively and directly inform users about, even when simple precautions and workarounds are actually available.

Consumers buy set-top boxes or expensive "smart" TVs only to find that support for key features is withdrawn within a couple of years because nobody wants to update them anymore, or necessary APIs have been summarily terminated.

The fact that many of these users could (given the money) buy new expensive smartphones or relatively inexpensive "plug in stick" set-top replacements isn't the point.

The point is that people hate being "bullied" -- and "technological bullying" is a very real phenomenon indeed.

It's utterly unreasonable to expect that consumers will possess understanding of these complicated technical ecosystems. "Who is responsible for updating the phone? The service provider? The manufacturer? The carrier?" "Why can't I view videos anymore on a TV only a few years old, when most people keep TVs in use for around 10 years?" "How come nobody told me that an API ("Hey, Lauren, what the hell is an API?") would be so quickly cut off?

Perhaps the most important point of all is that the effect of all this is much like the proverbial death of a thousand cuts. No single item alone is likely to be a death blow, but by so often essentially treating many of our users like jerks, we are gradually poisoning a well of goodwill that will be very difficult to ever cleanse, and in the process we hand ammunition to our adversaries, many of whom would very much like to bring us down or otherwise control the "eggheads" in their midsts.

We don't need nor expect every user to love us and our technologies. But at a minimum we can strive for them not to hate us -- and perhaps to even respect us a bit.

Ultimately, it's our choice.

Be seeing you.


Posted by Lauren at 12:35 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 01, 2015

When Mozilla's Fanatics Make Us All Look Bad

One of the recurring problems we face as technologists is accusations that we are out of touch with the sorts of issues and problems that affect most people. We're accused of pushing through changes without taking into account the reality of the costs and collateral damage that will be triggered, and basically of being downright arrogant toward the world at large.

Unfortunately, such complaints are not wholly without merit, and one need look no further than current discussions on a major Mozilla development mailing list to understand why.

You know Mozilla, of course -- the custodians of the Firefox browser. The same firm that stole a bundle of perfectly happy Google Search users to hand over to Yahoo under the terms of a lucrative new business deal.

Right, that Mozilla.

Well, if you run an older, legacy website that hasn't had the money, time, technical ability, or other resources necessary to convert over to encrypted https connections, it appears that Mozilla is talking about a little surprise for you.

Looks like they may want to shut you down.

Now, one would be hard-pressed to find a more outspoken proponent of opportunistic encryption than I am -- I've been boosting the concept for ages. In fact, years ago I wrote a piece entitled "http: Must Die!"

However, in the time since then, it's become ever more clear that trying to force sites into the increasingly corrupt and dysfunctional existing SSL/TLS certificate infrastructure would grossly disserve many legacy sites, especially smaller ones with extremely limited resources available.

I have long been an advocate of leveraging self-signed certificates -- yes, despite their known limitations -- as an interim step toward a new, more practical opportunistic crypto infrastructure -- but this obviously takes significant time even in the best of circumstances.

But whatever specific technological path is taken, a foundational requirement should be using the carrot and not the stick to help encourage these transitions.

And while Mozilla is by no means the only firm that can be accurately accused of using rather hard-edged "we know better so just shut up or get left behind, losers!" approaches, the folks over at Mozilla are really sharpening up the javelins and charging up the cattle prods.

What they're discussing for Firefox is turning off unencrypted http support. You're not able to run encrypted https? Too bad, Firefox users won't be able to access your sites. Or perhaps for a while they'll just get a big red warning telling would-be visitors that you're subhuman slime who just doesn't care about security.

Plus -- you guessed it -- it seems that they'd like to make this an Internet standard so you'd effectively have no escape regardless of which browser was in use.

As someone who has long advocated the righteousness of fully-encrypted Internet communications, I find the attitude being expressed over at Mozilla to be infuriating, because while the end goal is laudable, the approach is indeed arrogant and almost religious in its fervor, and in its refusal to acknowledge the problems with which the "little guys" on the Net have to deal with every day.

For all the talk of supposedly "automatic" ways to convert sites to https, and the availability of so-called "free" security certificates, the bottom line is that many legacy sites are simply unable to devote the resources necessary to undergo such conversions and maintain them. Many of these sites have been providing reference materials for many years that -- frankly -- are not of the sort where communications security can realistically be seen as a priority matter.

Now, if Mozilla is willing to establish a cadre of bonded and insured site design experts willing to perform https conversions for such sites without charge, and help maintain them forevermore, well, I'd certainly be interested in having that conversation. That's using the carrot approach I mentioned earlier.

On the other hand, plans to try use those sharp sticks and prods to try bully these sites into the https camp like cattle -- well, if you think the world has a mixed view of technologists now, if Mozilla gets its way we'll end up with a positive rating on par with politicians -- if we're lucky.

I very much want to see an Internet where all communications are securely encrypted, but only if it's done the right way, with sites and users treated as valued partners with a full understanding of their resource constraints and sensibilities -- and not as "losers" to be treated with what amounts fundamentally to arrogant contempt.

Be seeing you.


Posted by Lauren at 11:34 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein