User Experience

I spend 3 weeks a year waiting for websites to load

by Alex Duncan  |  July 23, 2011 – 12:28 pm

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For the past 6 months I have been losing 2-3 hours per week in productivity and this time it’s not due to my hideous, world beating, ability to procrastinate. It’s due to the chronic state of the internet in China.

Coming to Dalian last month I naively hoped that things would be better here up North. I had heard that Shanghai’s internet connectivity was the worst in China. I dreamt about the prospect of web pages that loaded in seconds and emails that send first time you click. My hopes turned out to be entirely mistaken. The internet here in Dalian is at very best on a par with that in Shanghai.

Firstly, this is deliberate, it simply cannot be a bandwidth or hardware issue. That problem is just too easy not to fix, undersea fibres are not prohibitively expensive or difficult to lay down and network hardware is cheaper and faster than ever before. It simply has to be a concerted effort to further disconnect China’s version of the internet from the rest of the world.

Any chinese net censors listening in on skype calls rather than finding out any juicy info must just get so so bored of listening to people saying “hello?!”, “are you there”, “I can hear you, can you hear me” endlessly.

Expats in China talk of a day when there will be two internets, well my friends as far as I’m concerned that day is already here. Everything that exists on the western internet has an equally capable and infinitely more filterable Chinese alternative. Any new ideas get copied in mere weeks if not hours.

I’ve wondered for a while at what point does the slow speed of the internet have a noticeable negative economic effect.

Here is my perspective on the situation. It already is having a huge effect and it shows no sign of getting any better.

I recently did some work for a large multi-national company based in Shanghai. Being an US headquartered company many of the tools and resources we were required to use were US based. On a good day we would lose a minimum of 30 mins due to connectivity issues, on average I would estimate 45mins was lost. If we total 30mins up, that’s 2.5hrs a week, ~10hrs a month, 120hrs a year or the equivalent of 3 full working weeks. Just to re-iterate how crazy that is we are at the very least wasting 3 full working weeks per year due to the chronic state of the internet here in China.

What must the effect be on a macro scale? It must add up to millions of hours and the equivalent of thousands of employees time completely wasted. China is an export economy, trade depends upon their ability to communicate with and sell things to the rest of the world, how is this not having a noticeable impact? Surely there are deals that don’t get done because websites don’t load, emails can’t be sent and skype calls repeatedly fail.

Before people email me with fancy solutions involving VPNs and connections via satellites and god knows what else believe me I’ve tried them all and none of them are sufficiently reliable to overcome this issue.

“When will I leave China?” I hear you asking.

Ever since the internet started to degrade there has been idle chit chat about whether or not it would force them to leave the country.

If you asked me a year ago it would have been almost inconceivable to me that a lack of internet connectivity would cause me to quit, but as I write this I see it as only a matter of time. Whether it is one year or two, there will be some point in the future when I, as someone whose work, nay entire existence, revolves around the internet will simply have to pack my bags and leave for somewhere where my stress levels are lower and I can breathe a little easier.

Update: New research from Harvard shows that the Chinese intranet is already here.

Why can’t more people do everything?

by Alex Duncan  |  July 12, 2011 – 10:19 am

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Creating successful websites roughly splits into 4 skill areas:

  • Marketing – Blogging/PPC/SEO/PR
  • UI/UX/Design – Wireframing/Fireworks
  • Frontend – HTML/CSS
  • Backend – Java/Ruby/PHP/ASP/Nginx

I’m constantly surprised and a little disappointed by the number of people I meet who are only really capable in one of these four areas and whose knowledge of the other areas is at best vague. I just don’t understand why or how these people think that is good enough. I’m not talking about people who lack ambition, I’m talking in many cases about people actively trying to start new online projects. In fact when I say they’re only capable in one of these areas, some are completely incapable in all 4 areas.

This doesn’t really seem to make much sense.

If you are a web entrepreneur and you cannot do all of the above to a reasonable level you are working with one arm tied behind your back. You are constantly reliant upon other people to work for you and you have little or no way at all of judging how good their work is. Your ability to communicate your ideas and bring them to fruition is severely limited. Sure if you have lots of money to splash around you can pay people to do it for you, but you still have no way of knowing if these mysterious technical things they are doing that you don’t understand are serving your ultimate business aims. If you’re one of these incapable people sitting here reading this post and shaking your head in disagreement, I promise you this is true, because unlike you, I know what you don’t know and please believe me when I tell you it’s important stuff.

I can completely understand why investors are unwilling to back founders who aren’t capable in these areas, it leaves them almost entirely reliant upon hiring smart people and burning the investors money at a faster rate. I’ve seen what happens in the gap between ideas guys and technical guys five dozen times and it’s never pretty.

Perhaps this post is a bit of an ego trip because I do possess this varied skill set. I’m definitely no superstar in any one area, but I’m pretty strong in each. I can take part in high level strategic discussions, wireframe solutions, design mock-ups, code the CSS & HTML, write the backend in PHP/Node.js, set up the linux server and then I’ve got a pretty good idea how to market the thing when it’s finished. Did I attend some special school, no. I’ve never had a days training, I studied Zoology at University and taught myself how to do everything using the wonderful free resource known as the internet.

Sure one guy on his own is ultimately not going to be able to do great things without help, but in the early stages of building a new company when ideas are embryonic and resources are scarce it can mean the difference between success and failure. Later on when things go better, sure I’ll hire people and I’ll be able to talk directly to them in a common language and guide and shape their work far more powerfully, because I can do what I’m paying them to do almost as well as they can.

So if you’re out there trying to find people to work for free/imaginary equity to help you build your latest and greatest idea. Give me a break, go start teaching yourself, there is no better way to learn something than having to do it and if this idea doesn’t succeed you’ll be in a far stronger position to start the next one.

FYI: My approach to creating websites is inspired by the world changing 37Signals, you can read more about their philosophy on their blog Signal vs. Noise.

This post by Tim Harford on why there will never be another Leonardo Da Vinci provides some great context for this problem.

Da Vinci was able to achieve so much, so broadly, because so little was known

I believe that the breath of knowledge is still manageable and that it is possible to be a Renaissance man/woman of the online sphere.

Survey Time

by Alex Duncan  |  July 8, 2011 – 1:55 pm

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My mentors are always telling me about the danger of assumptions. So to try and get some real user insights I’ve spent the past couple of days assembling this survey.

It wasn’t nearly as easy as I thought it would be and sitting down with multiple people watching as they filled out the survey was a very beneficial exercise. One of the hardest parts of writing the survey was deciding the objectives and then creating questions which would achieve these objectives. There was a dark period mid way through where I got quite distracted and confused as I tried to ask questions about more general trends, but I managed to pull it back in the end and I’ve already received 80 very insightful responses. The survey is still open for a couple of days, so please send it to all the fashionable girls you know.

I used Survs.com to create and send this survey and I unreservedly recommend it to anyone who is thinking about sending a survey, much less bloated than SurveyMonkey.

What is McDonald’s Strategy in China?

by Alex Duncan  |  July 3, 2011 – 3:52 pm

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Just what is the big M up to in China. In a reversal of their US fortunes they lag far behind their rival KFC largely due to the fact that Chinese people prefer fried Chicken to Beef Burgers. On one hand they are adapting to Chinese consumers, in 2009 McDonald’s introduced a couple of new chicken options which rapidly became some of their most popular items. On the other hand their stores seem to be undergoing some kind of wolf in sheep’s clothing cum Starbucks knock off transformation and there are clear signs it’s not really working.

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I’m certainly not a regular customer, my intermittent visits are usually a needs must affair. As a casual observer, over the past few months, I have noticed a concerted remodeling of the familiar gaudy stores into much more sleek McCafé joints, complete with faux wood decor and gleaming brushed stainless steel bean to cup coffee machines (and jaunty jazz tunes). What at first seemed an isolated trend seems to be slowly rolling out across all stores. From a personal perspective I’m all in favour the coffee is drinkable and cakes definitely preferable to the usual borderline indeterminate processed fayre.

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What is universally common to these made over stores is the deserted coffee counter. While the fast-food lines bustle with customers the (often more prominently positioned) coffee counter sits idle. Dozens of customers buy the far inferior drip coffee from the main counter, wouldn’t it make sense to integrate the two (I’m sure McDonalds tried this). The times I’ve used it there usually isn’t enough money in the till to offer me change and the staff seem unfamiliar with the equipment as if actually operating it is a rare novelty.

After my, rather rambling, setting of the scene I can’t help but wonder what McDonalds is playing at. Huge investment is going into these stores, staff and equipment that is currently almost completely unused. Did they do some kind of blue sky research that told them this is what consumers wanted? Are they playing a long game, will western coffee culture eventually become ubiquitous in China? Or is this some kind of window dressing/loss leader which distances McDonald’s from it’s cheap and cheerful rivals. Making it seem more up market and allowing it to add 1元 to all prices? I’m genuinely fascinated as to how this strategy was derived and why store after store is being converted with no obvious sign that this approach is successful. I’m usually inclined to believe these huge corporations have some greater insight I’m unaware of, but this time I think they might just have got it wrong. It definitely isn’t a sure fire strategy for taking on the likes of KFC.

In the entire hour I’ve sat here in McDonald’s on 西安路 here in 大连 a grand total of 2 people have bought coffee from the McCafé counter. If the girl spends any more time wiping the counter she’ll doubtless erode it away.

I’ll just keep wondering and Ronald if you’re reading this feel free to chime in with a comment.

Comic Helvetica

by Alex Duncan  |  April 1, 2011 – 10:37 pm

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Playful scamps at Google turn Helvetica’s search results a little funny!

Web PageSpeed Tool from Google

by Alex Duncan  |  April 1, 2011 – 10:28 pm

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With online attention spans getting ever shorter Google provides yet another great tool to help developers optimise websites for speed. Those who run their own apache server will very likely be familiar with Google’s mod_pagespeed module. Now they’ve bought this same speed freak philosophy to this very helpful online tool http://pagespeed.googlelabs.com/. I recommend anyone with a website to type in their url and see where they could improve.

Why I Switched from GoDaddy to Rackspace Cloud Servers

by Alex Duncan  |  October 10, 2010 – 10:16 am

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Anyone who runs an e-commerce website knows speed is king and downtime is simply unbearable. This week I helped a client make the final switch from the simply awful GoDaddy to the wonderful Rackspace Cloud in the process improving speed AND saving both time and money.

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New Blog…Boom Boom!

by Alex Duncan  |  February 9, 2010 – 10:35 am

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This blog refresh has been quite literally months in the making, but eventually after hours and hours of agonising over pixels and code I finally got it live! Read More »

The Social Web is Broken

by Alex Duncan  |  February 9, 2010 – 9:26 am

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After months of feeling alone, feeling like I saw something others didn’t and simultaneously like I was the only one that didn’t get it. Finally today someone who knows a lot more about this kind of thing said what I had been thinking. Read More »

Human Psychology and Webdesign

by Alex Duncan  |  May 10, 2009 – 3:36 pm

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Recently I’ve been working more intensively on improving web interfaces and I feel quite at home in this area. It has however made me hypersensitive to the design of other websites, and how I interact with them. Read More »