Are you broken?

File this one under Broken as explained by Seth Godin.

This week I realized that my backup hard drive at home was not working correctly. It clicks when it is powered on, and no disk utilities I have can find it. I thought I’d try a fairly robust utility that I’ve purchased in the past. My copy is woefully outdated, so I decided to buy the new one. Go along through the web site, put in the billing information, all of that.

At the bottom, the web page asks for an email address for the serial number and a .zip attachment. In red letters, the site says, “Gmail accounts can’t receive .zip files.”


Every email address I use regularly is supported by Gmail. Even my work email address uses Google apps for business. I could use my .mac address, but frankly I’ve found that sometimes its spam filters are a little too good and legitimate email never reaches me (in my inbox or spam folder!). So I don’t trust that address for this task. The email address given to me by my ISP? Pfft. I never use it or even bothered to set it up. I wouldn’t know the password if it was on a sticky note.


This is nuts. Absolutely nuts. Why on earth would any business want to set up its sales system to eliminate a huge chunk of the population? And another thing—the .zip format is primarily used on Windows. This particular business sells utilities for the Mac OS only. Why use a file format that’s essentially foreign?

What is in the .zip file they intended to send to me, anyway? The software? How about just letting me download it via a link? The serial number? How about having your system generate a PDF attachment instead? A .zip file? Really? It was created back when George H.W. Bush was in his first year as president—1989.

As you might guess, I did not purchase the utility. The lesson: if you want people to buy your products or services, don’t give them a broken web commerce system.


Don’t ask for help and then say I’m not allowed to answer

keyboardlockMy recent post on lawyers using email discussion lists as gofers has received quite a bit of attention, ironically, on at least one email discussion list. Today, something else popped up that I felt is worth commenting on. (Warning, slight rant ahead.)

A lawyer posted a question to an email discussion list. I replied (to the list and directly to the lawyer), and I received an automatic reply:

Sorry for the auto reply. In an effort to control spam I now allow incoming messages only from senders I have approved beforehand. If you’d like to be added to my list of approved senders, fill out the request form at the link below…

I was a little annoyed. I understand no one wants more spam in their email inbox. (Could I say this spam filter system was spamming me by putting the auto-reply in my inbox?) On the other hand, asking a question and then making me jump through a hoop or two to give you an answer seems a bit, well, off-putting. I quickly calmed down (I went from a 3 to a 2 on the Irritation Scale, so it wasn’t that big a deal) and realized there is an opportunity to share some lessons.

There are ways this type of spam control could backfire. If a judge wanted to email this attorney, could the judge even load the web site provided in the link? Many governmental IT departments blacklist a lot of web sites. If a potential client wanted to contact this attorney, will the potential client feel welcome or like they aren’t good enough to be heard from?

Spam (unsolicited commercial email, if you want to be technical) is a huge problem. Everyone needs some kind of spam filter. The better filters are those that don’t require an emailer to be white-listed. I happen to use Sanebox. Google Mail (the regular and apps for business version) has excellent spam filters. There are add-on software applications that will use databases to assess whether incoming email is spam. None of them require the sender to do anything to make sure her email gets through. Plus, who wants to have to take the time to approve email senders anyway?

I will be the first to admit that I’m becoming a bit of a curmudgeon. But technology is supposed to make our lives easier, not more annoying (yes, it has a long, long way to go in many instances). Making it even a little more difficult for people to communicate with you, in my view, is not worth the convenience on your end. If you’re using one of these “thou must be approved first” systems or services, you might consider looking for a better solution.

Do we really want longer battery life in our phones?

Christopher Mims over at the Wall Street Journal ($) argues that Apple, Samsung, et al. should stop worrying about making smart phones so thin. Instead, he says, give us longer battery life.

I agree. I’d love to have batteries that last longer in my phone.

Mims points to a survey of consumers which found that improved battery life is the “No. 1 thing on their wish list.”

Maybe, maybe not.

I’m reminded of a study I read about years ago. A manufacturer of washing machines surveyed consumers to ask what was important to them. The company wanted to know whether consumers wanted a more basic, inexpensive machine or a full-featured one with a higher price tag. The survey results overwhelmingly said a more basic, inexpensive machine was more desired among consumers. So the company built lots of those.

The company nearly went broke due to poor sales. It turns out that consumers answering the survey wanted to appear to be responsible, frugal stewards of their household resources. But in reality, they wanted the machine that would do it all, even at a higher price.

It seems to me the analysis offered by Mims is on target. We don’t need thinner phones—we can live with the current thicknesses offered by the manufacturers. (Do we really want a phone so thin it could be dropped down into the window space inside your car door? You just know that would happen to someone.) But we do want improved battery life.

It’s probably too late for Apple to make big changes in the iPhone 7 that I expect this fall. That design work is done. Better battery life in the present form factor of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus would be a big win. But Apple’s engineering and  design teams may have already been told “thin is in,” and have created another sleeker, mind-blowingly thin device.

I would happily trade a few grams (or more than a few) and a bit larger form factor if the battery life is noticeably better. Let’s hope the reviewers out there start clamoring for the same and that the phone designers hear them.

Bad web site behavior

We can all get angry at the occasional news report or tweet that we disagree with, but there is something that drives me into serious anger: web sites that wrest control of my browser away from me. It used to be we had to deal with annoyances like browser windows being resized. Or those that played music (often crappy renditions of something that sound like a reject from a Wendy Carlos album). Pop-up ads and windows became another annoyance, and browser apps soon had a feature allowing us to block them.

But today some web sites feel they have the right to take control of my browser. This morning I had my latest encounter with this frustration. A local news site has a video embedded along with its story. That’s fine, I can watch video of the newscast report if I want. But then the damn thing starts playing an ad—and there is no way to stop it. I have to hit the mute button. Then come the modern day versions of the pop-up ad. You know, those things that show up over the web page, can’t be moved out of the way, and have the smallest darn place to click and close it.

What I don’t understand is the thinking that goes on. Do web site publishers think we consumers like this treatment? If that’s not it, what are they thinking? I understand they are desperate for ad revenues to support their businesses, but web sites that behave this way are the equivalent of restaurants where the servers bring food to your table without letting you order and then force feed the food to you. That model would drive customers away in droves, and the same goes for web sites.

If you are a web site publisher, please—please—don’t do these kinds of things. Let us keep control and make our own choices. If you respect us as readers, we are far more likely to return to your site.

We need more useless PDF forms online

If your business or agency provides PDF files for your various forms, be sure to make them completely useless. Don’t let users fill in the blanks in their PDF application. Password protect them. Make sure the link is dead. Why? So that you can attract the ire of your site’s visitors, of course!

This short rant is inspired by the folks in the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance. That department is charged with, among other things, creating and providing a form to be filled out and submitted to the county auditor when a piece of real estate is transferred. I needed to fill one out this morning, so after a Google search, I found the form and downloaded it. The form itself is three pages. The first page asks for information about the property and the conditions of the transfer (for value, gift, etc.). I typed in the data and checked a series of boxes, enjoying the fact that the department provided this fill-in form to make everyone’s life easier.

The second page asks for information about the preparer, so I was happy to fill in my name. But then when I clicked on the field to type in my city, state, and zip code, I found out the field is password protected. So is the field for the phone number. So is every other field on the page.

What. The. Hell.

Why on earth someone would think it makes sense to password-protect a field that can be filled in by pen anyway is beyond me. Maybe someone forgot to remove password protection before uploading the form (although I cannot envision why the fields would have been password-protected in the first place). Whatever the reason, this experience gives you the excuse to check your forms available online to make sure they are usable, easily found, and downloadable.