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  • As a recovering technical writer, I try to restrain my impulse to explain how things work, but sometimes I simply can't curb my enthusiasm. I've taken a week to grope my way around the New Cowbird so as to be sure I understand how to use it and what it is and isn't, and here's what I found so far...

    As a technical writer, I learned to approach software from a user's point of view. The teams I worked with all included a usability specialist, who from time to time would contact actual users and then expose them to existing and unreleased software features under controlled conditions. In a lab setting, the UX ("user experience") experts would give users tasks to perform and, as they worked, get them to talk about how it was going for them. They passed on what they told the developers to us writers, and we did what we could to help users find information about how to accomplish what they needed to do as directly as possible.

    What the UX people discovered about getting things done was generally useful, but sometimes the divide between how the product worked and users' expectations of it was too great to bridge without rewriting the code.

    Cowbird probably doesn't have enough resources to deploy UX specialists to read users' minds. If Cowbird did, it would understand more clearly what's good, bad and ugly about how the site works. If Cowbird did this, we would still be able to sprout stories, find stories with particular tags, and search stories without unnecessary and confusing options. DNA not.

    Cowbirders seem confused, fatigued, annoyed. This is about more than overcoming muscle memory when interfaces change. It's mostly due to us feeling left out of the loop as Cowbird iterates.

    Not surprisingly, I ran into a number of new bugs last week. The morning of the second day, Cowbird simply broke. Every page I went to came up black, with lists of non-functioning links running down and across, and with no pictures. It looked like either someone removed or messed up a style sheet, but it could have been due to some other arcane mishap.

    For example, what's with the multiple email notifications about a given story? Seems that now, whenever an author edits and saves an existing story, his or her audience is alerted that it was changed. I sort of like this, even though it feels like spam. It means that people will know when we revise a story – at least if this feature isn't a bug. Formerly, there was no payoff to trying to improve stories. Now such efforts are evident to one's audience. But it would help if we had an email preference to control receipt of such notifications.

    I have not yet applied for citizenship, so I don't know what features might greet me there – maybe even sprouts. Speaking of which, where did they go? Some of us have serialized stories, and unless we took care to include forward and backward links to episodes, that information is lost in the NCB, as are relations of stories between authors. It just doesn't seem right to decontextualize our stories.

    When I decided to upload a new picture for my profile. I was able to delete the existing one, and upload a new one, but when I tried to save my profile, I was unsuccessful. So I spent a day with you sans visage, but then was then able to correct it by repeating the process.

    Next, I browsed some of my old stories and noticed that some of the whitespace in one of them had gone away. Some but not all paragraphs were mashed together. So I edited the story and determined that it looked OK in the story editor. When I saved it, the strangest thing happened: The image for the story was replaced with my new headshot. Aiiiii! So I edited again, deleted my face, uploaded the original image file and saved the story. That restored the picture. I only was able to do that because I keep a folder full of stories and image files I upload to CB.

    By the way, I was never able to fix the whitespace problem. I suspect NCB has a bug that closes up paragraphs following any that end with some form of HTML markup, but haven't investigated that hypothesis yet.

    I find that now it's much harder to find things, whether they be stories, tags, or related material in general. While they are gorgeous to look at, the pages that now catalog stories are not particularly helpful to locate what we are looking for, IMHO. The old mosaic view of stories is much more efficient for that. At least that view is still available.

    The next time Cowbird changes so radically, I hope we get release notes that tell us what changed, why, how to do things we expect to be able to do, what we can do that's new, and just how to do those things. If features disappear (like sprouts seem to have), I think an explanation is in order.

    Whoever is coding Cowbird or checking that code, please walk around to the other side of the screen, forget what you know about how it is supposed to work, and pretend to be a regular user. Feel our pain. Cowbird, B UX.


    @image: Inflict bad UX on users you secretly hate by Andrew Stellman.
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