Rob Cottingham's blog

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Vendetta of the Week: When branding trumps usability

Vendetta of the WeekI had to rent a car last week for a family trip through the frozen wastelands of Southern Ontario, which meant an even more arduous journey: through the web sites of car rental agencies.

I'm going to single out one in particular - National - but every other site I looked at had its own flavour of misery to inflict on hapless users. (I feel honour-bound to mention that the actual staff were very nice to us and the pickup and dropoff at Pearson were a breeze.)

After I went through the process of giving National the dates and times I wanted to collect and dispose of the car, and then comparing the rates for various sizes and classes of vehicle, I was ready to click the OK button.

Here's the screen I saw:

Image of the National car rental web site

Twice - twice! - I clicked on the tasty-looking left-hand button that says "go!" in bold, high-contrast letters.

And each time, I had to start again.

Because that button actually isn't for going. It's for stopping and backing up. And if you're paying close attention, you'll notice the words "Go Back" in light text next to it.

Part of the fault was mine - it was late in the day and my mind was on cruise control - but a lot of your users are likely to be in the same state. When they see a big, glossy button that says "go!", years of web surfing have taught them that clicking it will submit the form. And years of driving have taught them that green means moving forward.

So why in hell would National use a big green button to mean "back up"?

The answer, it seems, is National's slogan: "Green means go!" Someone at the company made the decision to extend that branding to their web site's interface elements... including the buttons.

It's a good thing that whoever made that call isn't in charge of vehicle specifications, or the cars' dashboards would consist of nothing but big glowing green "Go!" buttons with the words "Engine is on fire. Please pull over" in tiny type beneath them.

Look, by the time your users are filling out the online rental form, they're committed to the transaction. You don't need to brand the experience to death. You do need to make the process as swift and painless as possible, so your user stays committed through to completion... and feels motivated to come back to the site next time they need a car.

Otherwise, green will mean go.

As in, elsewhere.

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A little more soul

WorldChanging interviews Alex about the Soul of the Internet

Jon Lebkowsky of WorldChanging has followed up on Alex's recent blog post about The Soul of the Internet. Here's a quote from Jon's interview with Alex:

What struck me in reading The Soul of Money is how my general discomfort with money is not unlike the discomfort a lot of people feel around technology. Rob and I live at the intersection of two worlds – the webby, social media scene, on the one hand, and the progressive/sustainability scene on the other. Many of our sustainability friends are bemused by our techiness; they see the Internet as another way that people are taken out of the real world of human interaction and connection to the natural world. I've rolled with their disinclination to engage online; but reading Twist's book made me think about how we could help these techno-skeptics to get more comfortable with technology, the same way that we need to get more comfortable with money.

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Can Web 2.0 save the world?

It's easy to get fixated on the shiny toys of the Web 2.0 world: the latest invitation-only beta of the hottest new collaborative technology using the coolest whatever. Nothing wrong with that; our natural affinity for cool and new helps provide a built-in audience for technological innovators.

But the bright glare of technological promise can obscure its social impact... and not just the negative effects that technology's critics are fond of citing.

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Run IE on your Mac with free ies4osx

ies4osx logoIt happens so often: a Mac web designer creates a site that looks amazing in Firefox and Safari. It validates flawlessly.

And then one day they happen to be looking at it on a friend's Windows machine running Internet Explorer, and it looks like hell: padding and margin settings blown out, weird little bugs popping up all over the place, and that wonderful design generally shredded.

The usual suggestion is to buy a full copy of Microsoft Windows (cha-ching!) and either use Boot Camp (rebooting every time you want to test a tweak to your design) or pony up the cash for virtualization software. Either way, you're dropping a chunk of change and using up a boatload of disk space.

Perhaps more appealing, you could buy CrossOver Mac, which for $60 lets you install and run lots of Windows software on your Mac.

But if all you want to do is test web sites, there's a much cheaper solution to your problem. As in free.

ies4osx is a Mac-friendly version of IEs 4 Linux, which uses the open-source WINE project to run slimmed-down versions of IE 5, 5.5, 6 and 7. (CrossOver Mac uses WINE as well.)

Installation is drop-dead easy:

  • download a disk image, and drag the folder it contains to your Applications folder,
  • download, unzip and run the ies4osx installer,
  • and run ies4osx itself to download your choice of flavours of IE.

The result? IE icons in your Applications folder, ready for you to launch 'em.

X11 logoOne little thing: when you run IE, it actually opens in X11, which is installed automatically in OS X 10.5, but is optional in earlier editions - Tiger users, dig out that installation disk.

A bigger issue: this only works for Intel-based Macs. G5 and G4 owners, my sympathies.

If my experience so far is typical, ies4osx is a winner. The installation process was flawless (although it would have been nice to have a progress indicator as the app installed various versions of IE -- as it turned out, that was only about 10 minutes or so).

So far so good on running IE... even simple Flash movies (like the ones that make up the headlines on the Social Signal blog) render fine, although more complex ones seem to choke.

So: Windows software without Windows, and without breaking out the Visa. Nice.

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These week's vendetta: OS X 10.5 Leopard's imperfections

Like so much that comes from Apple, OS X 10.5 is a thing of beauty. Really and truly.

Oh, there are glitches like the way transluscent menu bar works... but on the whole, it's very nice.

Vendetta of the Week


After about a month of Leopardy goodness, here are a few of the spots I'm not enjoying so much. In fact, they're so thoroughly on my nerves that they've qualified as my Vendetta of the Week:

  • Spaces. That virtual desktop feature looked so promising at the outset, so wonderfully and thoughtfully implemented. But once you start launching documents and finding them turning up in seemingly arbitrary locations, and switching applications only to be taken to entirely unexpected desktops, the frustration mounts. I don't mind learning how a feature's quirks and foibles, and I'm prepared to put up with arbitrary behaviors... but not capricious, inconsistent ones. Kindly pick a system and stick to it, Apple.
  • My keyboard freezing. I'm not the only one with this problem: the system suddenly stops recognizing the keyboard for about a minute at a time. (Just the laptop keyboard; a USB keyboard still works fine.) Once it starts happening, the only way to stop it is to restart the computer. (Actually, I just noticed a forum post that suggests toggling Num Lock. By god, it worked. It's a pain, but it worked.) ...but only temporarily. I restarted. Update: Apple has released a fix.
  • The firewall. It's a colossal step backward from a place that wasn't that far forward to begin with. Yes, it's certainly simpler and easier to use; stripping out most of the useful features will do that for you.
  • Time Machine. As backup software, it couldn't be simpler, and bravo. But why can't I easily set my own preferred interval for backups... or force a backup right now?

Those are my beefs with Leopard. What are yours?

Added: How could I have forgotten? Clicking the "Save" button for attachments used to launch a handy dialog box allowing you to pick a destination folder. Now, it just dumps those files into a single pre-defined location – which I never, ever want to do. (To get around this, hold the button down and choose from the menu that appears.)

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Writing to be heard

In the midst of this great GuideStar piece on writing fundraising letters comes a sentence that galvanized me:

  • Beginning sentences with "and"- one of my favorite connectors that encourages readers to keep reading (actually "listening" because that's the way we talk with friends).

Listening. That's why conversational writing, be it in blog posts, speeches or direct mail, has such power.

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"You got Drupal in my Second Life!" "You got Second Life in my Drupal!"

Bridging the virtual world and your information in Drupal

Second Life logo behind crumbling wall

From an illustration ©

We're pleased to announce a brand new Drupal module...

...but first, the reason we created it:

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Nudging participation along at

User-based sites like Vancity's thrive on participation. And there's a lively community creating changes and blogging about them... which is a tribute to the community, to the site's compelling concept and to the work of community animator Kate Dugas.

Now Vancity wants to take participation to the next level.

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How to add an authenticated RSS feed in Mail for OS X 10.5

We're a little Basecamp-crazy over here at Social Signal, and a lot RSS-crazy. So the fact that Basecamp spits out a handy RSS feed that updates you when your projects to much as twitch is, to us, a Good Thing.

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Green Gifts, meet the XO laptop

Green Gifts application iconLast month, read full article

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Work Smarter with Evernote

Get more out of Evernote with Alexandra Samuel's great new ebook, the first in the Harvard Business Press Work Smarter with Social Media series!

Available on Amazon, iTunes and HBR.

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