Category Archives: Site review

New BBC Homepage review

Bbc

So, the new BBC Homepage has now been rolled out for all users as the default landing page for bbc.co.uk.

The BBC have a huge usability challenge. The site covers everything from the most popular news website in the UK to CBeebies, from the excellent iPlayer to detailed microsites on most scientific explorations.

There’s a huge amount of content on the site, and sections of the site aimed at toddlers who can’t read to silver surfers.

In my opinion, the new homepage addresses the usability challenge very well. I like the 3 tabs along the bottom as different ways to browse content (Most Popular, What’s On and Explore).

Bbc_toolbar

The new toolbar at the top is very Mac/ Google-esque, providing the most common links throughout the entire BBC web estate. At the moment you can see the style of the toolbar changes across this site, and I expect this to become common over the coming months.

Finally, there’s the scrolling features area at the top of the site. Very iPhone-ey (no pun intended). Great on a touch screen but with a mouse it’s quite fiddly. It’s the same as the new version of Chrome, with the ‘Apps’ and the ‘Most Visited’ sliding navigation. Great on a phone, poor with a mouse.

Chrome

Next year will see an explosion of touch screen PCs once Windows 8 is released. Earlier this year I considered buying a touch screen PC for home, but human hands (and especially my children’s hands) are too greasy to consider using on a flat surface. We bought a standard PC in the end and it still annoys me how many fingerprints appear on the [non-touch] screen.

I was in a meeting yesterday with a few people, one of them with an iPad. One of the guys turned to the iPad user and said “You use the letters ‘e’, ‘u’ and ‘s’ a lot, judging by the state of your screen”. The iPad user replied with “Interesting you say that, because my boss’ name is Sue”.

Back to desktop touch screens – I don’t think we’re ready for touch screen’s yet. It’s solving a problem that doesn’t exist – I’m faster typing and navigating with a mouse and keyboard than colleagues with an iPad.

In summary, I like the design of the new BBC homepage. It solves a huge challenge really well, by consolidating a huge site into a number of easy to use components and promoting some of them nicely. Now I need to use it with clean hands and a touch screen.

 

Stinging nettles? There’s an app for that

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Although I love the outdoors, I haven’t been stung by stinging nettles for years. Until this weekend, when I went actively looking for small boxes in stinging nettles around the parks near to my home.

It’s all been part of an activity called geocaching. I’d heard about it from my niece whose Scout troop look for geocaches whenever they go camping or on a day out.

Geocaching is a simple concept – it’s a real world treasure hunt game. There are over 1.5 million caches around the world. You can go to the main website, geocaching.com, or use one of the iPhone/ Android apps and look for a cache near you. The site runs a ‘freemium’ model – you can play for free or for advanced features you need to pay a small charge.

I live in North West London and there is at least one geocache in every park near my house. There was even a cache at the end of my road – the one photographed above. Caches range from ‘micro’ size – the size of a 35mm film canister, all the way to a ‘large’ box. Inside the cache is some paper to write your name and a short message, and in the larger containers there are other objects. The rules are that you can remove an object if you replace it with an object of more value.

I’m always in favour of any activity that gets children away from the television, and part of geocaching’s success is that because there are so many places to find, it’s easy to have a spare hour on the weekend to pop out and find a cache.

There’s no policing or moderation of the system – so there’s nothing to stop you going to the website and claiming you’ve found all 1.5 million caches. But that’s missing the point – it’s a game, and the fun is really in finding the boxes more than the website components.

We found five geocaches this weekend (and couldn’t find a sixth, in the closest park to my house). It felt quite addictive and fun for all the family – including the dog who I don’t think we’ve ever walked so far. Just be careful of the stinging nettles.

npowerclub72.com site review

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This week npower, who secured the naming rights to the Football League from the 2010/11 season for three years, jumped on the bandwagon and launched a Football League social network – www.npowerclub72.com.

The agency behind the website clearly had some good intentions, some of which I agree with:

  1. Don’t use Facebook Connect for everything, because unless you’re a unique level of Superbrand, all the consumer data that you’ll be collecting will be owned by Facebook. I agree with this and at Endava we call this On Portal and Off Portal. Off Portal are social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. where the brand has no permanent rights to consumer data, and On Portal are brand-owned social networks where all the data belongs to the brand.
  2. Badges are good. I also agree with the philosophy that when users have used the site for long enough, reward them with badges. This idea has been around for a long time (Xbox or even Gold/Platinum credit cards and airline points cards). Badges cost nothing to distribute (they are only pixels), and instantly provide a level of loyalty to a website where users want to return to earn the next badge. On Npower’s website, users earn a badge for visiting/ claiming to visit a Football League club’s ground.
  3. Football and social networks. It’s been a long time coming – with football the most popular sport in the UK, and social networks so successful here as well, it’s natural to create a network for football fans.

So far so good.

The design is OK, nothing too fancy, and then again, it probably doesn’t need to be – neither Facebook or its twin brother Google+ are going to win any creative design awards.

Here’s what I’d have done differently if we ran the site:

  1. Badges are overused. In fact, the only thing to do on the site is earn badges. No other user generated content exists, and there’s no moderation on the site to you claiming all the badges. This defeats the loyalty aspect completely.
  2. No Facebook integration at all. The site should update Facebook (and Twitter, etc.) when users earn badges (once they sort out the badge issue).
  3. The visit-a-football-ground should be extended to upload pictures when a user visits a ground. This will provide a level of self-moderation.
  4. There’s no mobile support. In 2011, all sites should include mobile browser support and then include [iPhone and Android, etc.] app support. The mobile support should include mobile photo uploads and GPS, to provide FourSquare style ‘Check-In’ functionality to grounds.
  5. There’s little content links to the Football League. I would expect at least a league table and results ticker.

Back to my point above – a social network for football fans has been a long time coming, and I still think the opportunity exists for someone (probably a sponsor) to produce one.

 

Avoiding the data cowboys

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In December 2010, I started looking for a software utility to back up my data on my home PC to my FTP server that I use for some personal websites.

The inevitable happened – I turned on my PC one day and the computer wouldn’t boot. I tried a number of different utilities and rescue remedies over the following days, but after a while the BIOS in the PC didn’t even recognise the drive. I bought an external hard disk caddy, plugged it into my laptop and only half the time my laptop could see the drive but no data. When it did recognise the drive, it would lose it after a few minutes.

I quickly asked some friends on Facebook for data utility recommendations.

Someone recommended a utility from SysTweak. I downloaded the trial – it showed me the contents of my disk! I recovered a few files, which worked. I quickly paid for the full version.

To recover the whole drive I had to do a hard disk scan. But everytime I started a scan it wouldn’t complete because the drive ‘disappeared’. It was really frustrating and time consuming.

I came into work one day and asked the super-techie-support chappies what to do. They recommended a data recovery company. However data recovery companies are the modern version of builders – most people wouldn’t recommend a company they’d used before! Apparently these companies all offer really low prices, but once you send your drive to them, they open it and then you receive the infamous “Oooooo, it’s worse than you described”, and then you’re led into further gotchas and costs.

You want recovery media – how else are you supposed to get hundreds of Gb back? You’d get charged full RRP for an external drive from these cowboys.

I was pretty despondent by this time, however the manager found me and recommended one company he’d used for a similar personal situation to mine – Datatrack Labs. I contacted the company and took a really cautious approach.

In the end, I managed to get the data recovered for around £350. It was considerably more than their website’s “starting from” cost, but they were open to negotiation because I was an individual rather than a business and I wasn’t in a hurry. I got all my data back on an external drive in a few weeks.

I’d highly recommend using Datatrack, in an industry which doesn’t get a lot of recommendations because of the cowboys out there. Actually, I’d recommend you back up your data more often.

Photo courtesy of Remi on Flickr (- it’s not a picture of my hard drive!)

 

Site review: Zoomumba

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Thanks to Alan for contacting me and asking me to highlight up and coming new sites on the blog. One of the issues I have here is that I get sent so many sites each week – by email and Twitter, that it’s difficult to do a review on all of them. Also, I’d rather to stick to the sites that I think are going to be successful rather than point to the many poor ones.

Chances are, if you have children, you already know about Zoomumba. It was introduced by my nephew to my son a fortnight ago, and now my eldest three are hooked. My wife too.

The site takes the Sims-like concept of creating a zoo, and puts it inside a browser. The typical, get-more-virtual-money-to-buy-more-attractions aim of the game seems to be addictive to my family!

From my perspective, the clever part of the game is the virtual currency element – you can only earn silver ‘coins’ inside the game to buy more attractions (e.g. animals, rides, amenities, merchandise shops, etc.). To collect gold coins though, well, you have to buy these with real money.

On Friday I joked with my wife that the kids will just need to spend more time collecting silver coins rather than trade our hard earned real cash for virtual stuff. At which point she owned up that she had let the kids “buy” some of the virtual currency. I won’t report on the rest of the conversation.

Here’s a related thought though – this week, VISA bought a virtual currency company, Playspan, for $190 million in cash. PlaySpan raised $18m in funding from Vodafone and Softbank last August, raising the total funding to $42m in three rounds.

Inside Network estimated that virtual goods in social games grew to $1.6 billion in revenues in 2010. I know where £2 of the 2011 revenues can be attributed.

IE 9 early review

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This morning I downloaded the latest version of Microsoft’s browser – IE 9. The browser is still in beta version, however we usually download beta versions of browsers to ensure our client sites are ready for the new browsers. (It’s like a moving target though, because the browser subtly changes between minor beta versions and you rarely get to hear about a firm date for a consumer launch).

After using IE 9 for the day, and making sure I wasn’t swayed by any other reviews, here’s my outcome.

It’s like a really slow version of Chrome.

When IE 9 loads, it still takes that trademark-long-time. I don’t know how Google get Chrome to load so quickly, but that to me is the best feature of the browser. Why do you want to have to wait longer than the fastest browser?

When IE 9 does eventually load (and I’m exaggerating about the length of the load time – it is much quicker than IE 8, but still the slowest out of Firefox and Chrome), it looks startlingly similar to Chrome. The favourite ‘star’ has moved to the left. The whole top area has moved to one horizontal area, making the actually web page a much larger area. The menus are now three small icons on the right hand side. Even the developer tools look the same as Chrome.

Microsoft will be marketing very hard that IE 9 is much faster at rendering web pages than the other browsers. They have a performance test page set up which I can only assume (but frankly can’t be bothered to do) is weighted against it’s competitors because Chrome and Firefox are so incredibly slow to IE 9 – more than you would expect from the hardware acceleration.

The sneakiest thing about the new browser though, is that Flash no longer works out-of-the-box. You have to reinstall it at Adobe.com. With Microsoft seeking domination for it’s slow-to-get-market-share Silverlight, in effect uninstalling Flash is near brilliance. Or it would be, if IE 9 came with Silverlight working out of the box. I was amazed that it didn’t work with IE 9. What an incredible own goal.

 

Chrome Translation

I prefer using the Google Chrome browser because I find it faster to launch and then open web pages than any other browser. This morning I was asked to (technically) review a French website, and when I went to the site, Chrome asked me if I wanted to translate the page. The result was much better than I’d imagined.

For example, open Google Chrome, load http://www.lemonde.fr/ and at the top of the page it will ask if you want to translate the page. Click Yes. Note that any of the images which have text can’t be translated, and often these types of images are used for buttons to click on. Menus are often written in ‘normal’ text though – so these are translated.

Let me know what you think of the results.

Le_monde

 

Review of HotelMap.com

Here’s a site that uses a neat mapping tool, probably the best one I’ve seen for a while:
www.hotelmap.com

Unfortunately it’s limited to central London at the moment, but the reason I like the site:

  1. It’s very easy to use – setting up a ‘new’ map takes a minute 
  2. The end user navigation is excellent – I set a map up for our London office (http://www.hotelmap.com/hotelmap/?pro=M7LUT) and it’s really easy to use – with all the various ‘panels’ around the screen. 
  3. The design is nice – I don’t know who did the mapping (it doesn’t look like Bing or Google). 
  4. The concept is pretty neat, of creating a map based on a central location (like the Endava office, or say, Madame Tussaud’s).

Things that they need to work on:

  1. The prices don’t seem particularly great!
  2. The speed of retrieving the costs need to be quicker.