Sunday, May 29, 2011

Rich Internet Applications does flash have a future?


There was a flurry of opinions flying about when HTML 5 started to become a reality, surrounding the future of Flash. Headlines such as "Flash is dead" abounded. But all of these seemed focused on two things a) Video in the page, b) Canvas allowing you to draw in the page. All great red-top tabloid style opinions but everything seemed to calm down. Visiting Adobe's website the other day I found the customer experience to be pretty poor (especially the flash based shopping cart) which got me thinking.

In m view Flash has a challenging future and could over time wither slowly and painfully, I am not sure it will die off, but I am pretty sure it is going to become less relevant. Whether this is a problem for Adobe or not I don't know as I would believe that as they are dominant in the web developer/designer space if one of their many tools declines will it impact overall revenue?

I think their problem is maintaining relevancy sufficiently to get designer/developers to continue to buy the tool. Flash has historically always delivered features which are "hard" to achieve with any other technology (and sometimes in it's history nigh on impossible), but things move on. If we look at a few examples of this taking a few of the main features we can see why it might be running out of steam

Animation

The first key feature was people able to build highly animated graphics using a graphical tool designers could understand. Fairly uniquely this  could also be achieved using vector graphics ensuring movie size was low. I remember when dial-up was still prevalent when coming across a flash movie was a pain because many designers shunned doing everything in vectors and plastered their animations with heavy bitmaps making download speed awful. Broadband has alleviated that problem.

This was quickly followed by the curse of the "skip intro" some meaningless animation which would play before you entered the site, from a customer experience perspective a total waste of time.

Then came the flash based website. Popular for agencies and automotives, I have always been against building most websites in Flash, it is a ridiculous thing to do from so many angles that I won't bore you with them here. Being fair there are some edge cases where it makes sense but in most main websites it just doesn't stack up.

Finally (not in chronological order) the ad networks start accepting flash and online advertising started to benefit from being able to present compelling content.

Of all of the above the only sensible things remaining relevant today are animations inside a website and Flash advertising.

Rich Internet Applications

I could be wrong but I believe Macromedia came up with (or at least pushed) the RIA phrase. I was there at the time and there was some pretty good stuff. Jeremy Allaire was still in the tech seat after the acquisition of Allaire (ColdFusion) . This was the forerunner to AJAX (we could call it AFAX ;-) ).

There was good stuff in here. Consumption of WebServices, ability to grab content from a page using normal HTTP requests (some of which was already in Flash before this) , a set of standard controls like fields and drop downs etc. and a beefing up of the scripting language.

This was cool. for the first time it was pretty easy to build an application which didn't need to refresh the page to do something.

Then to cap it all Flash could handle video, properly.  So in one fail swoop there was one tool that could deliver great facilities across all browsers.

There was only one real problem, the type of development knowledge required rested with a smaller fraternity of the Flash development community, those who could script and design. For a traditional developer (VB type skills) the tool was too weird. I always thought (and wrote to Jeremy Allaire on this) that if they had produced a VB like Tool interface for developers they might have got more adoption.

But along comes AJAX and worse still (for Flash) libraries like jQuery and mootols, Flash may have some unique features that might make it better, but in reality for most situations the free technology would suffice and have advantages. Even with the addition of Adobe Flex which was a server side solution for building RIAs with Flash presentation, there are probably more cases for using the freely available tech than Flash.

So this leaves Flash in the territory of Video only. A bit harsh perhaps, but to be fair there are applications where only Flash will do. One example that is a fantastic demonstration for this is KickApps widget studio (now renamed to app studio). It would be pretty impossible to build such an awesome online tool without Flash. But my point is about relevancy the times you need Flash are more specialist situations.

Mobile

This is where I think Macromedia/Adobe made a huge mistake (hindsight is 20/20 vision, I couldn't see it at the time). Back in the day when mobile UI's where dire, Flash had a place as a solution for the mobile manufacturers. The trouble is, Macromedia were then after a revenue stream from embedding flash in devices. So instead of continuing their ubiquity play by being on every browser (by being free) they didn't get much traction in the mobile market. Then the game changing iPhone came along and they weren't in play. Even now for some inexplicable reason they aren't allowed on the apple IOS platforms.

Some may argue that it's OK because Flash is on Andriod, but website publishers would be mad not to ignore the lucrative iPad and iPhone user base (even if Android over takes IOSIOS why would I bother with Flash ?


What does the future hold

So there it is. Flash's relevancy could shrink and more importantly if it's ubiquity on devices shrinks, then it will become just another technology to choose from. Sure it's the Daddy when it comes to animation and until corporates distribute a modern enough browser to handle HTML 5 in their standard desktops it is safe ('ish). But with mobile and tablets driving website design more. I wonder whether it will be as relevant as it needs to be in a few years time.

For me I wouldn't use Flash for Android and IOS as it's just not worth the hassle and the moment and as soon as IE 9 hits the majority of corporate desktops then I would expect Flash's relevancy to drop. I suppose the only saving grace is that alot of corporate desktops are Windows XP which (rumour has it) will not support IE 9.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Is the ICO eating its own dog food on new EU Cookie Law?


I will confess up front, I am biased when it comes to this ridiculous piece of legislation. The impact on online businesses is in my opinion a real pain in the rear, but that depends on your interpretation. So, not to bore the rare reader who comes across this post I am  not going to go into the whys and wherefores of the legislation apart from saying IMHO they swung the pendulum far too far the other way when trying to deal with cookie abuse on advertising networks. I think the issue now is more about how we handle this legislative farce from a customer experience perspective and I thought a great place to start would be the ICO website itself. Bear in mind that we probably have a reasonable amount of time to address this, but you can form your own opinion on that from the ICO announcement.

Off tack for a mo' I was pretty amused when I found this post, which for me really brought home the potential pitfalls of implementing the legislation with a mock up of the worst customer experience ever!

Now the ICO have published some guidelines (which are disappointingly high level) I thought it would be amusing to take a look at what they have done.

Step 1:

Go to their home page. Greeted by a pretty ugly message in the top of the page, but as it's an ugly website anyway, no drama. Interestingly there is one and only one opt-in message. Which reads
"On 26 May 2011, the rules about cookies on websites changed. This site uses cookies. One of the cookies we use is essential for parts of the site to operate and has already been set. You may delete and block all cookies from this site, but parts of the site will not work. To find out more about cookies on this website and how to delete cookies, see our privacy notice"



Three things caught my eye :-
  • They have chosen to already set a cookie having viewed that as "necessary" for the site function
  • There is only one message and it's not a pop-up. 
  • There is also an accessibility and usability flaw in this setup. If you have cookies disabled the message is hidden by javascript. If you have Javascript turned off (screen readers) this message is not hidden - therefore if you click accept you get into an annoying anomaly where the cookie isn't accepted and it keeps nagging you and also starting to misbehave functionally. I'm going to ignore this but it's worth thinking about accessibility in your planning.

Necessary ?

Let's deal with the "necessary" thing first. If you read the privacy policy this is a session cookie and only contains the session id. It is transient in nature and if we go to the privacy policy they explain

"This cookie is essential for the online notification form to operate and is set upon your arrival to the ICO site. This cookie is deleted when you leave the ICO website.".

Hmmmm.

The debate for me is the key provision of the Directive which states that you can only set cookies (and that includes session cookies) without permission if it is "necessary". Specifically  the directive (4b below) says the following
  • "6 (1) Subject to paragraph (4), a person shall not store or gain access to information stored, in the terminal equipment of a subscriber or user unless the requirements of paragraph (2) are met
  • (2) The requirements are that the subscriber or user of that terminal equipment--
    • (a) is provided with clear and comprehensive information about the purposes of the storage of, or access to, that information; and
    • (b) has given his or her consent.
  • (3) Where an electronic communications network is used by the same person to store or access information in the terminal equipment of a subscriber or user on more than one occasion, it is sufficient for the purposes of this regulation that the requirements of paragraph (2) are met in respect of the initial use.
  • “(3A) For the purposes of paragraph (2), consent may be signified by a subscriber who amends or sets controls on the Internet browser which the subscriber uses or by using another application or programme to signify consent.
  • (4) Paragraph (1) shall not apply to the technical storage of, or access to, information--
    • (a) for the sole purpose of carrying out the transmission of a communication over an electronic communications network; or
    • (b) where such storage or access is strictly necessary for the provision"
The ICO also state
"This exception is a narrow one but might apply, for example, to a cookie you use to ensure that when a user of your site has chosen the goods they wish to buy and clicks the ‘add to basket’ or ‘proceed to checkout’ button, your site ‘remembers’ what they chose on a previous page. You would not need to get consent for this type of activity".
Be aware that they are very clear in other docs that they will look closely at any interpretation of "necessary" and will use very narrow definitionwhen making an assessment.

So let's apply their own words on this session cookie. Technically the site operates without this cookie. I can browse and search with cookies turned off and there is no warning telling me that the site will not work. The key function they highlight from their micro copy is "online notification form to operate". In my view this is not the "site", this is a specific piece of functionality which only needs setting if I choose to use that function.

Necessary ? I think not.

I really had to search for this form but can't fill it in anyway (because of all the info required) so have not tested it fully to see if it will function, but what I can see is that the form is a multi page process and a session id would be handy for it's function but NOT for the entire site.

This is where their guidelines come in again.They define some suggestions of how to handle cookies in different scenarios and one of them is "Feature led consent" i.e. when the user needs to use the function tell them then. It would be a simple matter of having micro copy on the form's first page informing the user. A simple example of this approach for me would be "remember me" features on login, it won't be hard to add some simple micro copy by the tick box.

Based on the above, I think IMHO this cookie does not pass the "strictly necessary" test (although it is harmless) and ICO should therefore practise what they preach. Splitting hairs, it is possible to build a multi part form app which does not use session cookies at all. I remember in the good old days it was actually condsidered best practise to code session handling to be cookie-less (by using session id's in URL's). So being very literal, it is not "strictly necessary" to have their session cookie at all.

(The devil in me would love to start a viral complaint campaign with lots of people complaining about this cookie, but sadly with my tumbleweed zone blog it ain't going to start here.)

Take-aways

Now I have had my fun at hypocrite bashing, what can we really take away from this for our own use? I would conclude the following:-
  • It is OK to seek permission to enable multiple cookies (phew)
  • Google Analytics cookies are not strictly "necessary" (which is a real shame)
  • They actually don't declare whether they have enabled or disabled GA data sharing which is an omission we should probably deal with

Step 2: Accepting the cookie

All functions as expected. I get the GA cookies and their track of the fact that I have accepted cookies. The irony of this makes me smirk i.e. the only way they (and we) can record whether someone is opted in is to set a cookie. One thing I did note was that they only set the cookie for a year and I have seen talk on permanent cookies being frowned upon. But what is a reasonable time frame?

Summary:


I currently believe the following (but I am sure things will unfold over time):-
  • We have a year to fix this, but taking actions between now and then is wise as the ICO has clearly said that those who do nothing for a year will not be viewed favourably, compared with those who have evidence of working on the problem.
  • We would be better off to progress as far down the ICO's recommended process as we are capable. It is worth checking out this blog and it's development as a method of assessment and classification. Tim at attacat has a nice idea about a scale of "naughtiness" and they are developing some audit tools which might be useful.It is likely that along the way we will probably hit some roadblocks where 3rd party widgets and tech that we currently use have not caught up with the law, but if we can evidence that we are assessing them and contacting the providers we can be seen to be doing something. Having a documented plan might not be a bad idea either more evidence of actively addressing the problem.
  • Google Analytics cookies (in fact all analytics and tracking cookies) are definitely NOT "necessary" - which is a real bummer across many facets of online business. The fact that there is now no guarantee that our web analytics will be as empirical as they currently are is bad generally and will impact ROI measurement on stuff like banners and Adwords.Hopefully one day there will be a cookie-less way of uniquely identifying a browser but I am not holding my breath.
  • The Google Analytics beta plug-in is IMHO a real kick in the ****. Essentially, if another site does a bad job of explaining the GA cookies but links to the GA privacy policy (which displays the plugin) and a user follows these links and installs the plugin, all other sites will loose analytics (from that user) because of that site's bad customer experience. Not happy about that one at all.
  • It is OK to seek permission to enable multiple cookies.
  • Sites with alot of cookies (many top name brands) will probably need to re-build the core sites to use less cookies leaving room for the cookies they have no choice about. What I mean by this is if I were to display a list of 37 cookies in my privacy policy, I would expect the number of opt-ins to be pretty low. Cutting out non-essential cookies might make my privacy policy contains less cookies and increase opt-in.
  • We probably need to address GA data sharing in the privacy policy
  • Long term cookies, especially permanent ones will probably be frowned upon. What the optimum cookie life will be, no clue.
  • Technically I think solutions are going to take a server-side approach to do this properly which means re-engineering. Javascript based quick fix approaches will do alot, but will not do it accessibly and that has a legal implication in itself
  • I am going to set up a COO company. Instead of SEO and SMO the new trend will be "Cookie Opt-in Optimisation".;-)
BTW I'm no lawyer so the above is just opinion, therefore you might wish to seek advice just to be sure - sadly the number of so-called information emails flying around from law firms probably means that they are all ramping up to make some money from this.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Cross channel not multi channel please!


Contact centres and outsourced contacts centres have been banging on about being multi channel for a while now, but we really need to change this as in most cases there are multiple channels but they are all completely separate.

Case in point a recent mobile experience. The end result was I went through all the channels and will end up using face 2 face to get my task done so cost per contact will be very high for them and C-SAT pretty low. There are some suggested common sense solutions later on in this post.

Scenario: thinking of buying an ipad2, probably go for the biggest, have an iphone (3g) with one provider and a USB data stick with another. Specifically I need the stick with another provider as it's the only connection I can get when on holiday and need to hotspot for my laptop.

  • Step 1:Checked out the ipad, had a quick look at both websites but they don't have the 64gb so left their sites quickly
  • Step 2 :Can I buy an ipad without a plan, some online research, looks OK
  • Step 3: What plan ? This is where the fun starts. Because I want the stick provider I start walking through their website and can't actually find a pay monthly sim only tariff. After alot of circuitous navigation I find that I can have sim only at £15 per month with a 1GB limit (less than my current plan) but can I find any details? no chance. I even try putting the sim only product in the shopping cart presuming it will have a link to full product details, but always get the pay as you go an no way to change it. #EPIC FAIL. Half an hour of wandering aimlessly around the site and I am no wiser. I also see that their sister company  is offering 3GB and unlimited BT hotspot for the same money, hmmmm.
  • Step 4: Phone. Track down the phone number on the website and this is where it get's a little more silly. I have a USB stick not a phone so I can't dial 150. By this time I don't have a landline to hand so I phone the mobile number for international use to avoid being charged a fortune by my phone provider for using an 0871 number (while navigating the usual tortuous IVR menus). But no, not allowed, I am not abroad. Gave up.
  • Step 5: Webchat. Browsing some more..... Hurrah, an invitation for a chat pops up, even better it's LivePerson which means it will probably have been implemented properly. Sadly this is a new business LivePreson implementation so I am politely invited to call customer services.
  • Step 6: Phone (again). It takes 2 minutes to navigate IVR and get a human being who gives me the answer but is unable to a) confirm it by any other means or b) give me a reference so I can prove I can browse with my ipad and importantly use it as a hotspot which I need.
  • Step 7 (future) I will have to go to the store and as orange are offering a beter deal and I am allowed to use both networks, looks like I buy from them instead.
Conclusion:
  • Channels used: web, chat, phone and (soon) face 2 face
  • Cost per contact: High
  • Result: Loss of a customer, I'll go Orange
  • C-SAT: Low

Solutions:
  1. Fix the web
    • Deal with usability by hiring a usability company like Experience Lab and test with real users
    • Trawl through the contact centre logs to build up scenarios and ensure the navigation works based on real life
  2. Implement webchat properly
    • If you aren't going to put it in Customer Service (why wouldn't you as it will save you money) and only have a new business sales function, at least use the escalate to call (click to call for you and me) so the silo'd chat service can actually pretend to be part of the organisation.
    • Put webcat in Customer Service, it will save you money and make customers happy it will also massively reduce email traffic. If you do have webchat in customer service and new business sales, then at least the new business people can transfer the chat (with transcript).
  3. Fix the IVR
    • Simple one this one, if you ask for my phone number by IVR make sure the advisor doesn't ask for it again, or don't ask for it in the IVR unless it makes the customer experience better. Heaven forbid considering using CLI to prefetch my details first
    • Check scenarios e.g. don't have a phone - only a stick so I can get through
  4. Integrate channels (cross channel not multi channel)
    • If you implement new channels such as chat, at least attempt to capture the chat and save it in CRM, would have made a much better conversation.
    • Customer experience management need to ensure web, Contact Centre and silo'd operations like chat share learnings so that navigation and information are equally good across the channels. Example, if the contact centre get a question they can't find on the website, tell the web team.