Sunday, July 16, 2017

What @laurenweinstein and @kevinmarks are saying about the unreadable web

During my time as a Motorola product manager, I occasionally had to deal with Section 508.

What is Section 508?

In June 2001 Section 508 of the Workforce Rehabilitation Act went into effect specifying the requirements for accessible Information and Communication Technology (ICT) that each federal agency needed to follow.

And if I skip over a lot of gobbledygook from the GSA page quoted above, we get to this:

Ensuring that government acquisitions of information and communication technology meet federal accessibility requirements for use by people with disabilities;

I'd guess that the majority of my readers have working eyes and ears, but what if you didn't? Section 508 and its related regulations ensure that you can still continue to read important blog posts like this one, and that you can get something out of pictures and visual content - even if you can't see the content.

(Confession: I was stymied as a product manager to figure out how Section 508 could apply to one of my scenarios, that in which a latent fingerprint examiner compared the ridges and bifurcations of two fingerprint images. Motorola wasn't selling a lot of latent workstations to the federal government when I was a product manager, but I was still musing about how a latent fingerprint examiner would compare images in the Section 508 world. How was he or she supposed to do this if blind - by a 3D physical representation of the contents of the screen? Tooltips ain't gonna help here.)

OK, now I'm going to show you a picture. Before I tell you where the picture came from, I'd like you to look at it and form your impressions. Don't worry about the words - just the general feel of the two images. Go ahead - I'll wait.


Now that you've looked at the picture, I'll give proper credit. This is taken from a post by Lauren Weinstein, and compares two separate blogs authored by Google. One of them uses a new visual format, while the other uses an old format. Can you guess which is new, and which is old?

Here, let me let Lauren help you answer that question.

Let’s compare the readability of two Google blogs. On the right, a recent item from Google’s main blog, which has converted to Google’s new low readability design. On the left, a recent entry from the Google Security Blog, which is currently still using the traditional high-readability design.

The differences are obvious, and the low contrast on the right is especially bad for persons with aging vision (this degrading of vision typically begins around age 18, by the way).


I should note that the terms "low readability" and "high readability" are not (obviously) used by Google itself, but were probably coined by Weinstein (or by someone else who doesn't care for the change). Weinstein is quite passionate about his dislike of the new format. He has not only expressed this dislike in the post that contained this comparison, but also in two prior posts on the topic.

How did we get into this mess in the first place? A Kevin Marks article in WIRED provides the...um, background.

So why are designers resorting to lighter and lighter text? When I asked designers why gray type has become so popular, many pointed me to the Typography Handbook, a reference guide to web design. The handbook warns against too much contrast. It recommends developers build using a very dark gray (#333) instead of pitch black (#000).

The theory espoused by designers is that black text on a white background can strain the eyes. Opting for a softer shade of black text, instead, makes a page more comfortable to read....Schwartz himself admits the conclusion is subjective.

Another common justification is that people with dyslexia may find contrast confusing, though studies recommend dimming the background color instead of lightening the type.

Several designers pointed me to Ian Storm Taylor’s article, “Design Tip: Never Use Black.” In it, Taylor argues that pure black is more concept than color....Taylor uses the variability of color to argue for subtlety in web design, not increasingly faint text.


Marks also makes the point that designers often design in optimal conditions - the best screens in optimally-lit offices. The designs that look great in such conditions may be look so good when you're standing outside on a sunny day, squinting at a mobile phone.

But all of that doesn't matter, because the trend is established and anyone who doesn't implement unreadable text will be ridiculed as not having a modern interface. After all, minimalistic designs are cool.


The design professional's description of this page says that is "uses just enough color to draw the eye to important content on the site." Of course, Weinstein, Marks, and others say that it accomplishes this by making the allegedly unimportant content completely unreadable. Which of course raises the question - if you don't want people to read that text, why did you put it there in the first place? Why not just use some "lorem ipsum" stuff instead? That text is quite popular; I guess a lot of SEO experts are recommending it.

But there's still hope, because the people that insist on unreadable interfaces are the same people who still insist on mandatory periodic password changes (see my #empoexpiire series of posts) - even though NIST no longer recommends mandatory password changes. Eventually the unreadable interface crowd will be locked out of their accounts, or (more likely) someone will guess their deceptively easy password and modify their code so that the fonts are readable.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Unintended consequences of the Starbucks app

In a 2015 post, I referred to Starbucks Mobile Order & Pay as a success. And frankly, it is - I remember back when I was a kid, we actually had to go INTO a business to order a drink and pay the money. Nowadays, you can order your drink AND pay for it in advance, and just pick the drink up when you get to the place. And, as Research & Markets has noted, proximity payment methods are not only becoming more popular, but also increase brand loyalty.

What could go wrong?

What if the ordering method becomes too popular?

While Starbucks has added a 15 percent increase in staff to its stores and is looking to add more down the road, 75 percent of polled workers said locations were not staffed to meet ... standards. Within the last three months, 62 percent of employees shared that the understaffing issue is impacting quality customer service.

Because while Mobile Order & Pay can reduce the workload at the cash register, it doesn't do anything for the workload at the food/drink production areas. And the baristas are apparently stressed.

So why did Coworker.org complete the survey? Because previously, someone launched a Coworker.org petition about Starbucks staffing. Excerpt:

The labor situation has gone from tight to infuriating. Labor has been cut so much in corporate stores, that one call-off (an employee calling in sick) impacts the entire day, as managers are directed to cut shifts to save on labor costs. Baristas trying to work more than 25 hours a week (myself included) find that a near impossible task. You end up taking it personally, when corporate directs your stores to understaff, and under schedule. You wonder if they realize how difficult it is to pay your bills when you work 25 hours a week?

And the survey mentions ANOTHER unintended consequence of Starbucks' loyalty innovations.

Before the implementation of a Starbucks Reward program (MSR), tips were higher. Now, with a growing percentage and majority of customers using the app, and their registered cards, tips are in major decline.

It's a common issue affecting numerous businesses - if someone gets food for free, why should they tip? (For the record, when my family uses the discounts provided by the Don Jose loyalty program, we calculate the tip based upon the pre-discount price. Oh, and I avoid Groupon deals.)

Naysayers would claim that perhaps Starbucks should just eliminate Mobile Order & Pay and the rewards program. That will reduce business to the old levels, and then employees won't be stressed until they lose their jobs.

The reality is that if customer service truly declines - and a survey such as this one can't really measure the level of customer service - then Starbucks will have to launch a NEW initiative to increase customer satisfaction.

(I'd say more, but I can't.)

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

What happens after Walmart topples from power? Look to West Virginia for the answer.

No company lasts forever.

I've talked about markets and supermarkets and big boxes ad nauseum, and I've repeatedly noted that A&P was displaced by the Krogers and Safeways, and that the Krogers and Safeways are being displaced by Walmart.

And Walmart will be displaced also.

Because someone - maybe Amazon, maybe someone else - will be able to cut costs lower than Walmart has.

And all the people who deplore what Walmart has done to Main Street will be REALLY unhappy when Walmart leaves.

Don't believe me? Look at what happened in a small town in West Virginia after the local Walmart Supercenter closed.

Hit hard by the longterm decline in coal mining that is the mainstay of the area, McDowell County has seen a devastating and sustained erosion of its people, from almost 100,000 in 1950 when coal was king, to about 18,000 today....

When you combine the county’s economic malaise with Walmart’s increasingly ferocious battle against Amazon for dominance over online retailing, you can see why outsized physical presences could seem surplus to requirements. “There has been a wave of closings across the US, most acutely in small towns and rural communities that have had heavy population loss,” said Michael Hicks, an economics professor at Ball State University who is an authority on Walmart’s local impact.


There are still Walmarts in the area, but they're an hour away, and people in West Virginia aren't used to driving an hour to get somewhere. (It's different in southern California.) So now it's hard to find work, and it's hard to shop. And the local governments are missing out on a lot of tax revenue, and are cutting services as a result.

But there was an unexpected consequence of Walmart's closure.

"It was a big thing for people round here when Walmart pulled out. People didn’t know what to do. Young people started leaving because there’s nothing for them here. It’s like we’re existing, but not existing.”

What? A closure of an impersonal blue and yellow store affects society?

You betcha.

Economic losses are only one aspect of the hurt felt locally as a result of Walmart’s passing. There is something intangible, less material – and more chilling – about the fallout, something that seems to flow from the dependency the people of McDowell County developed on the retail magic conjured up inside that big box.

It’s touched upon by Wanda Church when she tries to explain why she cried that day. It was because, she says, she lost her family when Walmart closed.

Her family?

“The people I worked with, I relied on them if I needed help. The customers, they were our family.”

You hear it from Darrell Williams, 42, a truck driver picking wild raspberries on the side of the road to make a fruit cobbler. He recalls that his twin boys acquired their nicknames inside the supercenter. “My kids grew up in there. They called them the Screamers, because they used to scream if they didn’t get what they wanted.”

For Dan Phillips, Walmart was a way of coping with bereavement after his wife died a few years ago. “If you were lonely and had nothing to do, you’d go to Walmart to talk to folk. It was a great social network.”

Being a schoolteacher, Phillips has a theory for what happened when the store closed. “Socialization. We lost our socialization factor. Now it’s hard to keep track of people, there’s no other place like it where you can stand and chat.”


And if Amazon replaces Walmart as the nation's Main Street, its socialization aspects are fairly rudimentary. Product reviews do not a society make.

I just downloaded the "Beauty and the Beast" movie, and the experience on my iPad, while not quite like the experience in the movie theater, is still superb.

Wanda, glad you liked the movie. Hey, how are those tomato plants doing?

Well, Mike, the sun's got the best of them, but some of the plants are still hanging in there. How's the wife?

Oh, she's doing good The cold spell we just had shook her up a bit, though.

Tell her to send some of that cold down here! Hey, will you be shopping tomorrow?

No, tomorrow's my day to play Pokemon Go, and my work has scheduled 24 hours of online meetings over the weekend.

That's too much, Mike! You take care.

You too, Wanda.


Now if Amazon were to buy Facebook...or perhaps Zynga...

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Supply, demand, and what @peter_turchin says about academic publishing

Acronym lovers know that Rick Perry heads the DOE. Acronym lovers - and others - also know that "DOE" does not stand for "Department of Economics." CNN quoted what Secretary Perry said about coal:

"Here's a little economics lesson: supply and demand. You put the supply out there and the demand will follow."

I was actually an economics major way back when, and vaguely remember how supply and demand curves work, how elasticity and inelasticity work, and how this is all founded on the premise that all people in the market have the same information. Okay.

I never entered academia, although I do have one published article to my credit). The listed co-author, Brian Kleiner, was my professor at the time. As a professor, it was imperative for him to have journal articles published, and at the time the system was a win-win for everyone. Not only did professors get publishing credit, but, as Peter Turchin notes, the publishers did well also:

Thirty years ago scientific publishers could rely to sell 5,000 subscriptions to university libraries. They could afford to keep the subscription costs reasonable, since they made money in bulk.

But Turchin notes what has happened since.

The publishers started increasing the cost of institutional subscriptions. Meanwhile library budgets started declining, so libraries started dropping subscriptions. Publishers increased the costs even more, to make up for reduced volume, and libraries responded by dropping more subscriptions.

As even Rick Perry could tell you, this is not a sustainable business model.

This does not mean that academic publishing is going away, however. Industrial Management & Data Systems is still going strong, apparently. And new business models are emerging. Turchin himself is Editor-in-Chief of Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution. All articles are peer reviewed, but the articles themselves are available for free. However, as commenter Bob Sykes notes at Turchin's post, these journals aren't considered good enough by some:

Promotion and tenure committees ... routinely use publication in high impact journals as one of the chief criteria for promotion and tenure, the others being external funding and Ph. D. production. Most of these for-profit journals are still high prestige, and so Assistant and Associate Professors, and Professors with administrative ambitions will continue to send papers to them.

But if the number of high impact journals declines, will the promotion and tenure committees have to adapt?

P.S. While writing this post, I managed to find an online version of the 1991 Bredehoft-Kleiner article. And I can easily pick out the portions that I authored. Given the content (THE COMMUNICATIONS REVOLUTION!), this is a possible topic for a tymshft post at some point.

P.P.S. I forgot to credit Edward Morbius for pointing me to Turchin's article in the first place.