Monthly Archives: November 2007

IM etiquette: the dreaded question mark

"Bob" and "Sarah" just met a few months ago.  They really enjoy talking to one another and have become close friends.  Today, Bob tells Sarah about a new web site he just found:

Bob says (10:02 am):
  Hey, check out this link,

But Sarah has her status set to Away and is at work.  She returns 6 hours later and replies,

Sarah says (4:26 pm):

But unfortunately Bob’s away and/or has closed the conversation window.  So what does Bob do when he returns to Sarah’s lone message?  He hits the ? key and smashes Enter without another thought.

Bob says (5:26 pm):

Sarah takes great offence to this, tells Bob that he obviously doesn’t care what she has to say and to not talk to her ever again.  Poor Bob, what did he do wrong?

Wikipedia defines a question mark (?) as "a punctuation mark that replaces the full stop at the end of an interrogative sentence."

As a single instant message to someone, the ? doesn’t really mean anything, makes little sense and comes off as rude and smug.  But you can avoid Bob’s catastrophe by using Messenger’s ‘show my last conversation’ feature. 

To get there, open up any Messenger window and press the Alt key on your keyboard to open up the menu bar.  Choose the Tools menu and then select Options.  Select the Messages category, and finally turn on the ‘Show my last conversation in new conversation windows‘ feature.

Of course, you’ll need to have Messenger’s message history engaged for this to work.  There’s no need for the question mark if you can see the previous conversation!

Now Bob can respond to Sarah correctly as he can see exactly what she was referring to. 

But Jonathan, I sign in on multiple locations or I don’t save my message history and don’t want to!
Then your best bet is to send a smiley, start on a different topic or just ignore the message all together. 

When you’re faced with a message like Sarah’s "neat" and are not sure what it refers to, it is your responsibility.  Even if you don’t have the ‘show my last conversation’ feature turned on, you can still access your message history (or use another application to log your conversations, like Messenger Plus Live!) to figure out what’s being said.  In a worst case scenario where it is imperative that you know what the message was associated with, you can simply ask your contact, "What was that ‘neat’ referring to?" or "Can you remind me what that was about?" 

I’ve also personally received the dreaded question mark by SMS on my phone.  This is even worse as someone spent money (or at least a portion of their text allotment) to send me a single question mark.  I promptly deleted the offending mark and didn’t bother to respond.

Don’t be the next Bob and Sarah; keep your question marks in your sentences where they belong!


MSN Games – Dominos: failure

My mother spends some of her spare time on MSN Games and typically on the word games.  But occasionally she branches out and today she decided to try MSN Dominos.

Her PC runs Vista and she has a standard user account.  I’m quickly summoned when she attempts to start the game, as Vista correctly prompts her for my credentials to install an ActiveX control.  Although this being a tad annoying since Flash, Java, and the Games installer is already installed — I thought, why not?

So with that typed in [click 1], up appears the expected Internet Explorer prompt wanting to install the MSN Games – Game Communicator.  Okay, let’s go ahead and install that [click 2].

So, do you think the game will start now?  Well…

Didn’t we just see this?  Okay fine, I’ll type in my credentials again [click 4]…

Great, it’s the MSN Games – Buddy Invite [click 5].  That’s just what I always wanted!  Care to guess if the game will start now?

Not again… Okay fine.  I’ll type it in once more [click 6].

I’ve spared you the screenshot — This time it’s the MSN Games – Game Chat control.  Install clicked [click 7].

I’m sorry, did someone test this at all?  Even without Vista and UAC, you would still have to click install to all these dialogs. 

This time it’s the MSN Games – Matchmaking control.  Now at this point my mother got up and left the room in frustration.  Still, I’ll keep going.  Install [click 8].

This one’s the MSN Games – Dominoes control [click 9 & 10]!  Will I finally get to play the game now?  I’ve just typed in my credentials 5 times and I’ve clicked install 5 times.  At this point I’d rather just gone to my room and gotten my dominos set out.

Now "the website" wants to run MSN Games – Matching control.  For those unfamiliar with the process, you have to click the bar and then click the Run ActiveX Control option [click 11 & 12].

Okay, done.   Think we’re done yet?  We’re not.

Okay, I’ll click Run [click 13].  The entire page reloads and…

And naturally the ads reload every time you do this.  So after clicking the bar again, choosing to run the control and confirming it [click 14, 15, & 15], the MSN Games – Invite control was next with the same procedure [click 16, 17 & 18].  Oddly enough that was it, the game started — and here I was thinking the actual game was just clicking to install and run ActiveX controls!

So it took many UAC screen flickers, a bit of frustration and 18 clicks to start this game.  Although I had to actually type in my credentials those 5 times, I’m counting each UAC prompt as one click as Administrator users in Vista would just be able to click Allow.

Unfortunately, that’s not all.  While replaying this scenario in a VM for the screenshots I noticed you get two additional components on a clean install — the MSN Games – Installer [UAC click + install click + ActiveX run clicks = 5] and the Adobe Flash Player [UAC click + install click = 2], bringing the total to 25 clicks.

This really isn’t acceptable, even if you weren’t running Vista.  If it really needs components beyond the standard ones that most users have installed (aka Flash), then it should be one component.  This so-called MSN Games – Installer component should automatically check for the latest version of the game, install it if its not done so, and then start the game automatically.  One prompt, one click for confirmation and the game should start.

After 25 clicks, the user has either given up like my mother (and she was just watching me) or is so tired of clicking these dialogs that they’ll play for a minute and then leave.  This also undermines the whole security model as it’s just another reason for the user to grow tiresome of these prompts and won’t even bother to read them (if they are still anyway). 

Although UAC will protect these components from writing to the disk, I really fail to see why a game requires full rights to my machine in the first place.  Luckily, my case of dominos in my bedroom requires just one small push to open, all I need is to program a robot to duplicate the computer player function…

Just turn OFF: exploration of visual cues

When I went to bed last night, I proceeded to set my alarm and noticed something odd on my alarm clock’s display.  The number 1 was displayed on the left-hand side and due to my sleepy state, I ignored it.  Next, I pressed the first button to check the alarm time, and a radio station frequency was displayed instead.

By then it had hit me that the radio was turned on and this confirmed it.  So the radio is on, but obviously I’m not hearing it.  So I check the volume knob and sure enough it’s all the way to the bottom.  Why was it left in this state? Because someone wanted to turn it off and couldn’t figure out how.

It’s inevitable living with other people that their alarm clocks will go off when they’re either sleeping (I sleep through them more regularly than I’d like) or not at home.  I certainly can recall plenty of instances where frustration has occurred whilst attempting to determine which button or which way to turn a switch in order to simply hush someone else’s clock.

What you can normally figure out is how to snooze the clock as it’s almost always the largest button, usually rectangular in size and right in the centre.  I never use this button and I don’t know anyone that does.  And even if you do use snooze every day, you still need to turn off the alarm.  So regardless, the OFF button is the primary button on a alarm clock — so why is it relegated to a non-obvious location, non-illuminated, and its appearance is the same as any other button on the device?

A good 20 minutes produced this in Adobe Illustrator…

This alarm clock is ringing, can you figure out how to turn it off?
If you guessed the obviously located, illuminated, unique green button you are correct.

Since it is located away from the other buttons and has a unique shape, even when the alarm is off (and therefore not illuminated) you know immediately that it has the most important purpose of the device.

I also put in a snooze button.  I bet you can find that one too. 

Just about anyone, regardless of age, technical skill, and sleepyness should be able to turn this alarm clock off.  We automatically recognize and process visual and audio cues without even realizing it.

Another great example is Windows itself and the standardized window style everyone has come to know and love.  Whether it’s a small tiny dialog or a big large application, the end goal for any window being displayed in a graphical user interface is to be closed.  In Windows XP, the X was turned red to make it even more obvious and in Vista, they even made it a different shape from the other buttons.  The red indicates a stop (which is a constant in the modern world), the unique size and shape indicates an important function, and finally, it’s always located in the top corner so you know where to find it.

Windows has other visual cues too.  For instance, an ellipsis indicates another window will open to prompt you for more information.  So, in the properties for any file in Vista, you’ll find this Security tab where you can clearly see the difference.

The Edit button will bring you a new dialog where you can select new permissions for every user listed.   Since this will be prompting you for information, it gets the ellipsis.

The Advanced button opens up a new dialog which displays the advanced permissions but doesn’t actually prompt you for any information or allow you to edit anything.  So, it doesn’t get the ellipsis.

The underline under the E in the Edit button and under the V in the Advanced button indicates you can press the Alt key, plus that letter keyboard combination to activate the desired button. 

Finally, the highlighted OK button indicates you can press the Enter key to hit that button and although it’s not obvious, you can use the tab key to highlight the other buttons.

There’s more cues in this dialog of course, but that’s all I’m going to mention here.

Sadly all Microsoft applications don’t have the same degree of cues.  Let’s look at Messenger:
The primary goal of Messenger is to communicate using text to your contacts.  To even do that, you need to open a conversation window to a particular contact.  So, how do you do that? What visual cues tell you how to do that?

Click a contact — nope, that just selected it.  Maybe I have to choose one of these toolbar icons?  Wait, what do these icons do anyway?  There’s a mail icon and it’s the first thing listed, so that must be it.  Wait, why is Internet Explorer starting?  Why is Hotmail loading?

It gets worse.

Okay, maybe I have to click the little green guy next to the name.  Nope, that opened something else, but look, there’s options here!  But, none of them say to start a conversation.

In fact, the only cue you get is when you finally hover over a name in Messenger and it tells you this:

Right-click to interact with this contact

And finally after right-clicking you get a small cue to the primary goal of the application. 

Send an instant message
Send other

So you’ve found the way to send an instant message, and the bold indicates that the bolded function is the default action.  But, how are you supposed to know to double-click to perform that action?  Not all default actions are double-click…

Now back to the toolbar icons, which ones take you to a website?  Which ones open up a dialog box?  And which ones open up a menu? 

You might have just said the ones with an arrow open a menu and you would be right, except for this one:

Oh, and did I mention that the last two options in this menu do not appear in the normal options window or in the normal application menu — but the top three do?  That is, if you can find the normal application menu…  Also, good luck finding out how to turn off the application — try hitting the X?  It just hides it.

No application has a perfect user interface but Messenger’s ranks among the worst for usability and comfort.  Even if you know what opens what, and which clicks to do where, without any visual cues presented, you don’t gain the confidence and a sense of familiarity that you would normally get with an application that did properly make use of these key interface ideals.  When you see the red X presented, subconsciously you’re aware that you can get out of that window by clicking that button (or advanced users by hitting the Esc key on the keyboard).  The Messenger interface has failed to provide a direct way to it’s primary function, let alone any unique cues towards it.

As for the alarm clock, I guess I’ll continue to use my phone as a primary alarm as no one will be able to turn that one ‘down’ when I’m not around.  It’s also relatively easy to turn off — flip open and choose the only option displayed — Disable.  Amusingly, the default action when flipped open is the dreaded snooze.  At least that default, however useless it may be, is consistent.

The blame game

From microsoft.public.windowsxp.messenger today…

From: <>
Subject: The authority function of the live blog is penetrated
Date: Sat, 17 Nov 2007 07:56:01 -0800

I have a blog on the Live Spaces. Sometimes I make jokes on the Chinese
government on my blog. I do not want the Chinese net policemen to see it, so
I restricted my blog access, allowing only my authorized friends to read my

I used google to search and I can’t find blog, so I am happy with this
function. However, one day I used the Chinese search engine,
and my blog is on the search results list. More scary, I can read my article
using the ‘cached contents’ function of Baidu.

I am angry. Microsoft did not do enough to protect users privacy. I hope the
Live technitians can see this message and fix this bug.

I will try to get to Live later.

Here is my reply for fun

From: "Jonathan Kay [MVP]"
Subject: Re: The authority function of the live blog is penetrated
Date: Sat, 17 Nov 2007 19:28:23 -0500


I’ll have Microsoft send in our elite MVP squadron to infiltrate the Baidu network operations center and have your pages removed immediately.

Seriously though, I’m curious what you expect them to do to "protect your privacy"?  If you write something online without explicitly protecting it, a search engine will find it —  especially on a major blog site like Spaces.  It is then up to that search engine to come back again and discover it’s gone, not to mention updating its index removing your content (and their cache thereof).

Google obviously updates its index more often than Baidu does.  I’m afraid in this case, the only person you can be angry with is yourself.  There is no bug here.

Jonathan Kay

Unfortunately, I forgot to specifically state that Baidu must have indexed it before he restricted it, since that may not be obvious.  Here’s the thread in question.  I doubt there will be any follow-ups.