Ticketmaster – a user hostile experience

Terrible UX experience with Ticketmaster today.

To start with, the pre-sale function of the web site doesn’t work on an iPhone. I loaded it a minute before the pre-sale was about to begin, watched the clock tick over, and pressed refresh. Nothing. Nada. As a web developer, I had the inclination to try loading it on a desktop PC, and unsurprisingly an ugly popup appeared telling me that the pre-sale was now open. Not a great start. I was on the same Wi-Fi network, and cleared the cache on my phone, so I don’t think it was a CDN issue. Anyone who only had their phone would have missed out on tickets.

Next, I had to register for an account (because this is a mandatory step – when it shouldn’t be), as usual I was careful to check the right boxes so that I opted out of marketing materials and to make sure they didn’t save my card details.

Before I pressed submit, I wanted to make a note of my login details with my generated password. I tried to copy my email address out of the text field, only to find Ticketmaster had disabled copy and paste. I really wish browser makers would disallow this user-hostile practise. Thankfully you can drag and drop text holding the control key to get the same effect, even when they’ve disabled copy and paste. But why do such a pointless thing?

I submit the form to find out my password is invalid, surprise surprise – the preference I’d set NOT to save card details, and to OPT OUT of marketing had been forgotten. Other information such as my email address and name had been remembered, but other settings seem to have conveniently erased and defaulted back to what I would imagine Ticketmaster would prefer. On the password issue, it was because my password contained some non-alphanumeric characters. A modern, secure system should not be restricting the complexity of passwords. I use a password manager, so my passwords are 20+ characters, randomly generated and contain all sorts of numbers, characters and digits. Ticketmaster however, thinks it’s a good idea to limit how secure passwords can be, and so rejects a perfectly good password, for no good reason. If they are hashing their passwords (with a salt) when storing them in the database, then it shouldn’t matter how long, or what characters my password has.

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Finally after my payment is confirmed, I am asked to “Confirm my details for a chance to win £3,000 to spend on Ticketmaster. ”

“Confirm my details” ?!  This immediately seemed to me like a disingenuous way to get people to part with their personal information. If you’re going to have a competition, then label is clearly as such. Asking someone to “Confirm their details” directly after an order process gives the impression it might be mandatory. It looks like this functionality is from a 3rd party partner called Rokt who boast on their web site they allow their clients to “present internal offers as well as up-sell and cross-sell offers to customers that have just transacted on your site.” – I’m sure there’s a great idea in there somewhere, but it’s not presented very well on Ticketmaster. If you want people to sign up for offers (a valid thing for someone to want to do) then tell them that, don’t ask them to “Confirm their details” and hope they won’t notice -especially when they’ve already opted out of marketing communications on the previous page.

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Unfortunately you can’t easily avoid doing business with Ticketmaster, because if you want to see a particular band on a certain day, they’re your only choice. Still, I’m looking forward to the gig.

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watchOS 4 – A mixed update

There are many great new features in watchOS 4, that on balance it is worth the upgrade. Positives include being able to adjust music more easily during a workout, the excellent new Siri watch face which it almost like an new user interface more akin to Google Wear, but within one watch face. I’ve found my watch is better at realising when it’s no longer in range of my phone should start using WiFi instead. The downsides are the familiar Apple software upgrade problems: it will slow down your watch, so much so that it’s noticeable even when glancing down at your wrist to check the time. Battery life is also slightly diminished in my experience. Not great for any of you who spent ~£500 on a stainless steal model and strap a 18 months ago.

So yes it’s nice to have these new features, but like everything in life, they come at a cost.

Does Apple really slow your phone down? Perhaps

Lots of  headlines like this in the press this week:

Is Apple intentionally slowing down your old iPhone? The data suggests not

The article reads:

Futuremark collected more than 100,000 benchmarking tests, from the iPhone 5S to the iPhone 7, and averaged the performance of both the processor (CPU) and the graphics chip (GPU) once a month between April 2016 and September 2017 with different versions of Apple’s software from iOS 9 to iOS 11.

According to Futuremark: “iPhone 5S GPU performance has remained consistent from iOS 9 to iOS 11, with only minor variations that fall well within normal levels.”

They’re missing the point. New operating systems don’t get slower because the manufacturer writes codes to throttle down CPUs. The reason new versions of iOS are slower on older hardware is because they do more. To be fair, the article does explain this. iOS 9 on an iPad 2 is almost unusable, it’s certainly a long way from the speed of iOS 4 the iPad two debuted with. Clearly something changes overtime, and CPUs do not wear out over the course of 4 years!

But is it intentional or not? Of course it is. I’m sure there is a business decision made by Apple on how much time to spend optimising software for older devices. It’s a tradeoff. iOS versions are made in less than a year. At some point you have to balance the needs of the ecosystem (having as many users as possible running the latest software), the cost of development, and the needs of users – which includes having a device that runs at an acceptable speed, as well as having the latest security updates and new features.  I’m don’t think it’s a bad tradeoff, but to say a smart company like Apple does this unintentionally doesn’t sit right with me.

You don’t need a new Apple Watch, but the ecosystem does

I’m not sold on the need for a cellular Apple Watch. While it’s a cool gadget and would be a nice luxury, I really wouldn’t recommend anyone buy it unless they are in the habit of upgrading their watch yearly. (Yes if the idea of upgrading your watch every year sounds ridiculous, that’s because is it.)

Why don’t you need it? Well, you do, just not yet.  The battery seems to be just able to cope with the demands of a 4G connection, and it’s still very limited from a software standpoint. For example, if you dictate a long reply to a message, and the dictation inevitably gets a word wrong, you can’t edit that one word by hand,  you have to say the whole phrase again, or just leave the mistake in and hope the recipient understands you. Guaranteed to loose any kudos on the train you thought that red dot might have given you. Apple will get there of course, but by the time they do, a new model with better battery life and a faster processor will be with us. So while like any technology geek I think it’s a cool gadget and a genius piece of technology, I do feel it makes sense to wait until there’s a better version, unless money is no object of course, or you have an exceptional circumstance that means having a phone on you at all times is a burden you’d rather not carry.

So why have Apple released it now, when it’s probably not ‘as ready’ as they’d like? My guess is that it helps the watch’s neglected app ecosystem. Now all of a sudden, rich people with their cellular Apple Watches are going to want to send WhatsApp messages from their watch. Time to build an app, WhatsApp. The same could be said for lots of the big players who’ve not yet bothered building watch apps. watchOS apps have been able to work somewhat independently from the phone for a couple of years now, by this I mean they can connect to the Internet (via WiFi or the phone), get their data and present it to the user interface without the phone. Original watchOS apps needed the phone for absolutely everything, including updating UI. Twitter and BBC News, to name just a few, still haven’t updated their apps to benefit from this new way of coding apps (which vastly improves performance), but now faced with a user base that doesn’t have their phone with them but expects the app to work, they might feel inclined to.

Is North Korea a distraction?

Gripping article in this week’s New Scientist on the gradual escalation of nuclear arms between the word’s superpowers, and this:

In June 2016, the British submarine Vengeance test-fired a Trident missile, the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Something went badly wrong, and the missile may have veered towards the US.

The missile was not carrying its nuclear warheads and was destroyed. The UK government has remained silent on what might have caused the incident, but “the failed Trident test is consistent with cyber interference,” says Paul Ingram of the British American Security Information Council, a think tank in London.

New Scientist

Some thoughts on the new Apple Watch Series 3

Apple Watch (original)
My favourite gadget

Finally, it’s here – a smartwatch that has it’s own cellular connection and so doesn’t require you have your phone with for it key functionality to work –  while also not looking like an ASBO tag.

I’m impressed that Apple were able to cram this new functionality into a watch that’s almost the same size as the previous generation. The ability to go out for a run, to a gig or to the pub for the evening and leave your phone at home is a game changer.  Being able to listen to music, get directions, take calls and respond to calls without anything on your person is something I imagine to be a very freeing experience. It’s still early days, and I expect the new watch to have significantly worse battery life when the cellular connection is used. Just as the current generation suffers when you use the GPS and heart rate monitoring functionaries, the new models will see less battery life if you use them away from your iPhone a lot of the time. In two or three years time however, when battery and processor efficiency has improved even more, these watches will be capable of  replacing our phones for many of their core uses. Will people want to replace their phones though? No camera, no web browser, no games. I doubt it. Having the option though, can be only a good thing. If you can leave your phone at home more and more often, you might even consider a bigger phone, or just having a tablet-sized device instead of a phone. Or perhaps we’ll just pull down out Apple Glasses when we need a bigger screen.

So will I be upgrading to the Series 3? In short, no. I bought an Apple Watch last year, and I’m going to make it last.⌚️

The future is not easy

Have you noticed lot of people lecturing about how the near future is going to be full of self-driving cars and robot doctors? The past shows us however, that predicting the future is not easy, and rarely do long-term predictions about technology come true. As this video and article demonstrate fantastically.

Humanoid robots exist alongside err… payphones? I’m still waiting for an electric belt that adapts to bodily and climatic conditions though…

From Insurgent to Blade Runner: why is the future on film always so grim?

Microsoft’s Burning Platform: The fire has spread

Remember Nokia’s burning platform? Now it’s Microsoft’s.

Back in 2011, Nokia’s then CEO Stephen Elop sent his now infamous “Burning Platform” memo, highlighting the company’s need to evolve or be eaten by its new competitors, Google and Apple. After a strategic alliance with Microsoft, the firm was then acquired by its new partner in 2013 amidst a wave of optimism that the two companies, once dominant in their own industries, could work together to make great devices and services. 
I hate to be negative about a a company I admire, and grew up using it’s products, but it seems to me that three years on, Nokia’s burning platform has spread to Windows. The onetime workhorse of every business around the world is looking decidedly shaky. It saddens me that a once great product and brand is now a shadow of it’s former self. I first used Windows 3.11 as a child, and have used every version since. While those older versions were never perfect, they were in line with the readability expected from a young industry. These days, in the age of instant on, affordable Chromebooks and “it just works’ MacBooks, it’s difficult to see a purpose for Windows, except to run legacy software. ChromeOS is well suited to the low-end, commodity markets, and Macs seem to be doing well at the high-end where reliability and power are required. 

So what’s the problem? For me it can be summed up in two points: reliability and usability. 

Windows 10 is unreliable. It takes too much work to get it to work. These days I don’t want to have to spend time making my computer work. That should be automatic. If I set a long file transfer going, I shouldn’t come back to see a message warning me that the computer is going to reboot in 10 minutes unless I cancel it. I hunt around in settings to try and find a way to configure the machine to never reboot without me telling it to, and there isn’t one. I could see why Microsoft did this, to look after users and make sure they’ve got the latest security updates, no doubt – but where’s the intelligence? Can’t it see I’m doing something? Is there an auto-save API like there is on the Mac? No: Microsoft’s API story is another mess, but it basically boils down to this: proper applications use the ancient Win32 API, and mobile apps need to use the new ‘Modern’ Universal App API. Another instance of this lack of reliability is something that’s been an issue for years, yet still happened to me on a fresh install of Windows 10. The task bar for some reason stopped unifying all of the windows into one button for Outlook, which gets confusing. So I closed Outlook, thinking that restarting the application would solve things. I go to start it again, and of course there’s an error. It turns out that in 2016, closing an application and starting it again 5 seconds later is not something Microsoft expect you to do. I remember this happening with Outlook 2003. In the end I had to reboot my machine in order to get to my email. This are just two admittedly pedantic examples – but I could share so many more – Windows 10 feels like it gets in the way more than it helps. 
Usability is another disaster on Windows 10. For a start, there is no consistency between applications anymore. The long-held ideal that an operating system should provide a consistent user interface to make applications easy to use and learn has been well and truly thrown out of the window. Office uses it’s own file picker – how is this even allowed by internal UI guidelines? Dialogs are still modal – meaning if you choose “Share > By Email” in Excel, all other Excel documents are blocked until you send that email. There are two versions of Skype. Ask someone to Skype you, and they might assume you mean Skype. But no! – You meant “Skype – for business”. There are two control panels, the new one has a back button that doesn’t go back to the last screen, depending on what the last screen was. Context menus have a seemingly random style depending on at which point in the 30 year history of Windows they were implemented. Even more shockingly is Microsoft seem to have decided that the “Hamburger menu” should now be a mainstay for modern apps, despite it being almost universally derided by UX practitioners. Of course non-modern (antique?) apps still use menus, or sometimes a ribbon, or sometimes a menu that’s hidden behind a button depending on how antique they are. It’s very rare for an application to use the native window style – in fact I couldn’t tell you what the native style looked like in Windows 10. Mail, Skype, Word, Explorer – they all look different. I can’t help think these issues all accumulate and are part of the reason that cool new apps for Windows are far and few these days.
Microsoft is still a company I admire, their Azure and Machine Learning services are second to none; and surprisingly their iOS apps are of a very high quality. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure someone at Microsoft is aware of the state Windows is in, and I hope that they can overcome internal politics or whatever challenges there are to put it right. I have friends who work at the company and they are some of the smartest people I know. I just hope they hurry up and fix Windows before the world moves on, for good.

Improving digital media rights

In an age when streaming services are all the rage –Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify et al, I still feel as though there are certain works of art that I want to own and not just rent. With music, this is a pain free process as most digital music is available to purchase is free of DRM (Digital Rights Management). DRM stops digital files being copied, with an aim to stop piracy. In reality though, if you look hard enough (you don’t have to look that hard) you can still find most popular digital media available for free on pirate sites. DRM doesn’t work. Thankfully the music industry saw the light and you can now buy DRM-free music from iTunes, Amazon and many other providers. The film, TV and book industry haven’t been so forward thinking however. There are no services that let you purchase a film legitimately without DRM. Why is this a bad thing? DRM stops unauthorised copying, which is fine by me because I don’t want to make any unauthorised copies. The problem is, DRM also promotes vendor lock-in. This means if I buy a TV show from my iPad, and then years later decide to switch to Android, those videos are stuck within the Apple ecosystem. If I buy a book on Kindle, but decide I would rather use some other make of e-reader, I’m not able to take my Kindle collection with me.  
Some services like Amazon Music and Google Play do offer cross-platform apps, so if I bought a TV series on an Android phone, I could watch it on an iPhone – but only using the Google app. If one day Google decides to stop supporting iPhone, I’m out of luck.

So what to do? Our governments seem keen to pass laws which promote and support DRM – I can understand this. An economy where goods are easy to steal and stealing is virtually undetectable – an economy based on good will if you like, is probably not an experiment they want to attempt. But what if they also passed laws that promoted consumer rights; rights not to be locked into a single platform? In this world, any digital goods purchased from one platform would be available to download again from rival platforms at no cost. If the other platform is somehow better (e.g. higher definition) then of course users would be expected to pay for the upgrade (though, I would expect the original version to still be available), but if it’s like for like, then consumers would have the right to transfer their purchases to as many platforms as they wish. This could be backed up by a common verified email address or block-chain style database, with safeguards in place to prevent abuse. It could be done, and it would make digital media much more competitive, improving the experience and price for consumers overall.  

Will it happen? Let’s say I’m not optimistic.