How Easy Social Networking Can Be. Except for What I Want To Do.

February 1st, 2010 by JR Francis 

Social media integration is all the rage. If you are even slightly technical or into the digital life, you probably have several accounts with the major providers, the largest of which are Twitter and Facebook.

Facebook and TwitterRelatively few folks continue their use of the other services, shown by the latest numbers of unique views and bandwidth. These two leaders’ numbers are far and away higher than all the others. Others will try and fool you with total registrations, but these are in most cases old. I have a MySpace account I look at once a month or so, am in possession of a drivers license so I don’t have Bebo, am not a paid shill or never signed up for Orkut, never heard of Hi5, and can’t imagine who I’d know on MyYearbook. In unique views, Facebook and Twitter rule.

Just a note, I would not expect that to continue. This is a highly volatile space, as MySpace had a huge lead on everyone else not so long ago, so there is no reason to think someone couldn’t unseat Facebook. I’d think a better integration with email and IM would be a differentiator that someone could use to jump ahead, so I’ve got my eyes on Google. I also think they’d make a great automobile company, so this opinion might be a little biased.

One of the biggest challenges of maintaining a social life, or a unified business presence on social media, is updating your status, photos, sales, specials and thoughts on the sites. Hundreds of articles exist online telling you how to have Twitter push to Facebook to change your status. Its as easy as installing the Twitter app on your Facebook and setting it to be allowed to update your status. The problem here, is that the online etiquette for the two sites is very different.

On Twitter, it is perfectly fine to update frequently. As long as they are not insanely serial and overly frequent, its perfectly fine to post once or twice an hour, several periods a day. Sharing links, retweeting, and posting your interesting thoughts is what Twitter is for.

Facebook is meant to combine all the features of the existing social networks and online activities; post what you are up to, share your pictures, write blogs, distribute cool links. It adds the essential piece of commenting on people’s postings and beautifully integrates it all into one package. But, its not proper to post too much. Facebook posts should be limited to 5 or 6 a day, and even then, not 7 days a week. People who have “friended” you will not want to see your name and profile pic show up on their page every single time they refresh their page.

The differences between the two make it difficult to combine them. There are many people and organizations who set up their accounts to propagate across both. I think this is a mistake. They are used for different reasons, and what value does it provide to followers of both accounts to have the exact same message? I know I’m frustrated reading the same information twice. (or more, depending if the accounts are set up correctly. Many have messages post two or more times.)

Facebook has made the curious decision to no longer allow Twitter to post simply to your wall, without updating your Facebook status. This was the ideal set up, as people interested enough to go to your page could see all of your communication if they were interested. I am of the belief that this was must have been a decision based on limiting the access of other applications that might be up to no good. Though, I’m not clear how this sepcific level of access wouldn’t be an allowable security setting. “Post to my wall, do not change my status.” Seems straightforward to me.

The best available solution is to have Facebook send your status to your Twitter account, and then supplement Twitter with more frequent updates, and add to Facebook with photos, blogs, and replies.

But how?

This is a piece of information that seems very elusive in online searches. “How do I have Facebook status update my Twitter” has many results but seemingly all of which led to information to to the very opposite. “Facebook change twitter” doesn’t seem to find any better results.

Luckily the solution is very simple. To have Twitter updated when you change your Facebook status, simply to to the widgets section of Facebook and click to the Twitter widget. Yeah, I had no idea there was a widgets section either. is the home of the widgets. From there, is the Twitter widget. Here you can link your profile page, and fan pages you created or administrate to the associated Twitter page. This will make sure that all of your normal statuses (statii?) from Facebook will show on your Twitter feed as well.

See how simple some things can be?

Do as I Say, Not as I… Don’t.

January 25th, 2010 by JR Francis 

Alnic Design Website 2010

I spent several hours updating the alnic website over the past couple of days. Go check it out, I think it came out really well. OK, truth be told, I have spent months working on it. Wait, in fact, I’ve been conceiving of changes to it for many years now. The previous version was launched over 5 years ago. That  is an eternity online and my previous web presence was doing my company and its image no favors. I’d recommend strongly against anyone following my lead on this, in fact I was exceptionally embarrassed at how poorly it looked. But I’m my own worst client.

The cobbler’s son has no shoes. You’ve probably heard that said before and its especially true with some companies. I didn’t realize how true it was for myself until I finally launched my site and looked at it beside my old one. But how do you prevent it? How does a web designer keep from having a 5 year old website? How does an auto mechanic keep a well-maintained car? How does a marketing company prevent their own message from getting stale?

Add yourself as a client.

Not just a meeting reminder, or a couple of days set aside, but run yourself through your full process. Fill out your own pre-work forms. Add yourself as a folder in your clients section. Track your progress, set delivery dates, write out your goals, expectations, and deliverables. It may seem silly, or like needless work, but why deprive yourself of the good work that you provide to your paying clients? In fact, you are your own best client. Who else has a product that reflects more upon your quality than your own? Aren’t your products getting you more business than anything else you do?

I had messed around, throwing HTML and graphics around many times. Countless times. I have so many separate folders where I started over form scratch, I had to archive them to clean up my work space to get the newest one completed. My portfolio items were scattered across my digital universe, some on my HD, some on CD, some on my backup… still others had no portfolio items, and were just posted live so I had to go capture them. This, perhaps needless to say, was not the best way.

Create a system for capturing ideas, concepts, other products you want to “be inspired by.” (If you know who actually said “Masters don’t borrow, they steal” please let me know. I’ve heard it attributed to about 10 different names. Caravaggio was who I thought it was, but I’m starting to doubt.) After plowing through my mess, I’ve decided a favorites folder in my browser and a “inspirations” virtual folder online were my best solution. Limited places for the items to be found, so a much better chance of  locating them when it is time.

Decide for your own company when the best time to self-service is, add yourself as a customer, and push to get your work done just like you would a client’s work. Your company is no less important.

Now, if we can all just figure out how not to be so picky with our work for ourselves. If you figure that one out, let me know. I’m a terrible web design client.

Flush the Lack of Usability

January 14th, 2010 by JR Francis 

Usability is everywhere. Or, rather, lack of it is everywhere. People tend to think of usability as strictly applicable to software or websites, but any time a human seeks to create action or change, the method they use could benefit from an analysis with usability in mind. Everything could stand to be easier.

An example of a place that seems to lack any user-centered thought? Bathrooms. Public ones, such as your office or favorite restaurant. I am amazed at times with how poorly these serve the user. My biggest pet peeve of all time is a door that pulls in to leave the facility. Push to leave. Always. Pulling the door creates a potentially germy, and often wet situation. Sharing that experience between patrons of the restroom is gross and unsanitary. If the designer of the facility had considered its use at all, they would have watched someone walk directly from the stall to the door ahead of them, thought of how gross that handle must be now, and figured out they’d rather push to leave.

Many designers forget or neglect to put themselves in their end user’s shoes. Regardless of what you may be laying out or drawing up, taking the time to document, discover, and design for your user is incredibly important.

The first step to creating a design that is user friendly is determining who your user is. Many websites have web statistics that can be analyzed. Most products have a defined target market. Every good sales person knows who they want to sell to and to whom they have sold. Get this information. Your design decisions will change if your user is a 60 year old woman, or a 20 year old male. Don’t accept the misconception that your user is everyone. (unless you are designing a bathroom.)

I take the step of creating profiles of the typical users. Sally User was a name I saw, but I found that boring. I name my profiles with flourish. Captain Marcus Slaphappypants is begging to use my web software, so I want it to work well for him. He is a 55 year old executive with limited computer knowledge, but doesn’t know that. He thinks he knows. Thereby, help catalogs are going to be useless, because he wont pour through them. TONS of contextual help, inline instruction, simple, clear language are what he needs.

The changes you make while putting yourself in your customer’s shoes are the vastly important ones. By imagining that you are using your own product in an every day scenario, you will make better decisions on where things are, how they look, and how they work.

That way, you will put a trash can next to the door to accommodate the paper towels people need to throw away after using them to open the wet bathroom door to get out.

Which Decision for Your Company? Flashy or Functional?

January 5th, 2010 by JR Francis 

The new frontier for web and digital communication is in mobile devices. Not just mobile-friendly display, with reduced size, images, and flowing content, but in applications. It’s the way to get ahead of your major competitors.

If you haven’t heard, “there’s an app for that” you must be Amish, in which case I’d like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for breaking your vow simply to read my blog. Fantastic. Its even common parlance to use the mocking version of that saying, “there’s a map for that.” The apps (or applications) are everywhere. iTunes app store claims to have upwards of ten thousand apps. Now, to be fair, there are about three thousand lighters, flashlights, and fart machines on there over and over. But, mobile phone apps are the way to go, to really be on the modern edge.

The problem is, many companies are making the wrong decision. OK, may not be the correct way to say it. Allow me to try again.

If you have a mobile app, and it only works on iPhone, you made a marketing decision instead of a business decision.

I am ok with making marketing decisions. They need to be, and are, made every day. But do not fool yourself into thinking that your singular app, only functional on iPhones, is truly serving your customer base. Talking about iPhone apps in your commercial, on your web site, it makes you feel and perhaps seem like you are forward thinking and cutting edge. Problem is, it’s a short sided, though flashy decision.

Blackberry phones are used by over twice as many mobile users as iPhones. Twice. So, why do you not hear about company’s Blackberry apps? Because the iPhone decided to market as sexy and exclusive and popular and hip. Blackberry is all business, baby. But, while their Apple counterparts are only available on one service network, Blackberry is available on every single one. While iPhone gets commercials with dancing teens, Blackberry has been pumping out secure handsets to businesses and individuals worldwide.

The correct business decision (and, conveniently, one that allows the marketing team to go on about their partisan bragging) is to create an app for iPhone, Blackberry, and Android, the three major shares in the smart phone, app-based market. This will serve the vast majority of the tech market, the people most likely to use your app in the way you intended.

I am consulting for a huge company right now who is developing an iPhone app. I asked if there were a Blackberry and Android version in process as well. After some poking around, I located a key piece of information; the iPhone app development was being funded by the marketing budget, not the technology or sales budgets. Very telling.

Also quite telling that their major competitor just announced their Blackberry and Android apps.

Exactly Which Box Are We In?

December 14th, 2009 by JR Francis 

Terms become popular in business, and then float around for years. Many begin to lose their meaning almost immediately. Others it seems, people never understood to begin with, they just run with whatever it is that seems to be close to what they heard.

One of the best, most frustrating examples was with a client I worked with for several months. The VP really enjoyed being involved in the weekly creative status meetings. The company was a young, progressive place where creative meetings were in a non-traditional meeting room with big leather couches, floor-to-ceiling white boards, nerf balls to throw, a free coke machine, TVs and projectors. We’d lob ideas and Nerf balls at each other for the better part of an hour. The VP would participate as best as he could. We’d occasionally remind him that the meetings weren’t the place for “how” or “how much” but rather the place for throwing things out there and seeing what stuck.

I think he possibly Googled the concept, and came in one day with the old, tired, “thinking outside of the box.” It is old, beginning to be trite, and certainly over used, but the concept is sound. Except that he didn’t really get it. We’d talk about making people fly, and he’d ask if we could make them stay near the ground. We’d say it would be cool to offer a stream of efficiency reminders to cell phones, he’d tell us we weren’t in the mobile space. It was a little bit of a wet towel, but we worked past it.

Then, he dropped one of my favorite cliché bombs of all time. We’d been talking very big concept, whacky unthinkables, and in his attempt to reign us in, he said, “I want us to think outside the box, but still inside OUR box.” The silence was enough to make your ears ring, quickly replaced by nervous shuffling, coughing, and heads swiveling for fear we’d catch each other’s eye and release the pent up laughter. It was a tear-producer at the bar that evening after work.  

If you find your company or associates using “buzzy” terms that you don’t quite follow, don’t be afraid to ask. Come out with it, “Hey, that web 2.0 stuff people talk about; what’s that mean, exactly?” That doesn’t make you look stupid, or not with it, it makes you look like you genuinely care about the subject at hand. Watch any episode of The Office is you want to see how poorly is goes when someone pretends they understand what is going on.

The most important thing is to communicate, to your employees and to your customers. Its especially hard to do so when you were using words that you don’t understand. And even moreso if the creative team is throwing nerf footballs at your head.

The Vowel System of Social Media for Business

November 11th, 2009 by JR Francis 

The keys to social media and your business.

Actionable, Engaging, Interesting, Opportune, Usable and Yes!

The tension between business and social media is more palpable than ever. In a large Fortune 100 company I recently consulted for, they both banned twitter on their Websense filter and had a company twitter to alert followers to sales and specials. Companies can’t decide if social media is worthwile yet, though some are certainly trying.

Clients ask all the time, “Should I really be using twitter and facebook or are they just for kids?” Or more importantly, “How do I use social media sites correctly?”

In that vein, I have used my intensive study and use of social media to assemble a checklist or guide to how a business can use sites such as twitter and facebook to their advantage. Looking at the sites form both the user and business perspective has been a challenge but has allowed me to come up with the following.

The Vowel System for Social Media.

A – Actionable
While all the other vowels that follow are valuable, this may be the most valuable, because it is the most overlooked. Your message should be actionable. What do you expect your social media presence to do? Part of it, mostly in fact, will be to simply have a presence, to be on the leading edge of technology to assure your customers that you are aware and alert. (two other As!) But the part overlooked is that you want to drive business. You want to make contacts, sell products, get visitors, engage and ingrain your business into your customer’s heads. Make your message actionable, give them a sale, give them a special page on your website to click through. Provide something for them to do further than simply read your message. It’s the most simple maxim of sales; ask for the sale.

E – Engaging
Whatever you put out on your social media page, whether you are using it personally or as a business needs to be engaging. Your readers should want to read it, want to think about it, want to know it. They should find your message of interest and be “into it.” Redbull does a good job at this, alerting customers about events, telling customer stories, releasing new product news. Your product may not be as dynamic as their and your marketing push is certainly not as large as theirs, but that doesn’t mean you can’t provide an engaging message. Tell a user story. Potential customers like hearing how they might be taken care of. Qdoba Mexican restaurant has a trivia question that when answered on facebook, awards 100 free burritos. That engages me every week.

I – Interesting
This may seem obvious, but your message should be interesting. Judging by most updates on social media sites, however, many people do not apply this litmus test to their posts. Are you telling them you just had coffee? Or are you telling them that your product just saved a customer 30% off operating costs? Are you saying your product is good or are you announcing that you just won an industry award for excellence? If you wouldn’t care to hear the news from one of your vendors or better still a potential vendor, then you shouldn’t post it yourself. Frequency of update should not come before interesting posts. If you don’t have anything interesting to say, as my grandpa use to tell me, don’t.

O – Opportune
“Give it to me now,” is the mantra of customers in general, but with social media its even more dire and extreme. Many people have hundreds of friend or people they follow, so this morning’s message is no longer on the front page this afternoon. Or even at lunch. Make your message about right now. Give updates on exciting products or work with existing clients. “Working on a huge project for XCompany to improve their ROI” seems fair, but how is that timely? “Watching postcards come off the press, showing XCompany’s new product line of Widgets” is far more about right now. Work with marketing and sales to get a morning sale you can post. A software company I follow gave away plug-ins from 10am to 11am. I missed it, and now have their alerts going to my cell phone. I don’t want to miss their news or their next give-away. Wouldn’t you like your alerts going to your customer’s cell phones?

U- Usable
The last thing you ever want to do is confuse or alienate customers with your social media presence. There needs to be a clear, simple, easy to use connection between your presence here, and your own website. There needs to be basic business information on your page, to assure the customer they have found the correct business (yours) and that they haven’t reached a fan tribute (we should all be so lucky) or an imposter. Put your contact info, your 800 number, your sale email address and certainly your web address in visable places.  Unless your marketing has already established a personality to your business (in the example of Justin Case for SafeAuto) don’t use this as your only physical manifestation of your business. While “Sally Sales” may be a cute idea, it will only obfuscate your message and cause a potential customer to be unclear of what your message is, what comes form this person, or what business she really represents. Making it easy for your customer to get the warm and fuzzies, the more likely they are to convert your social media into a sale.

Y- Yes
Say yes to social media. Don’t call it an experiment, don’t “sorta” so it. Commit. Make it a line item of your weekly status meetings. Solicit ideas form your staff. Commit to it, and really do it. If you approach it as a maybe, it will come off as a maybe to your customers. So say yes to social media. Create your own page and follow or friend competitors, leaders in social media, large companies, small progressive companies, and see how they use it. Then, apply those concepts and ideas to your company’s social media. It was said “The masters don’t borrow, they steal.” In fact, it was said so many times, the quote doesn’t have a solid attributable source. So the quote proves itself right, it has been stolen so many times. If someone else has a good idea that intrigued you, use it.

The only thing you have to gain… are customers.

Chain of Links

October 30th, 2009 by JR Francis 

A few useful web design links;

Form labels placed above the field win the usability test:

Easy fixes to make your website easier to use:

Leverage others’ usability findings to improve your site:

Learn the Vowels of Social Media for your business:

Why a developer does not a UI interface specialist make (AKA, hire a UI Designer, don’t let IT make the UI):

Fooling search engines with your site is over, but best practices are always a good idea:

If you’d like to see your link here, feel free to add it to the comments.

Piece of Cake Doesn’t Mean Easy

October 1st, 2009 by JR Francis 

I was spending some down time looking at my favorite type of blog, the themed picture blog. Particularly disasters, such as Fail Blog,, and the whole collection of cheezburger sites. This time, I was enjoying some really hysterical failures on Cake Wrecks.

The sheer number of ways these cakes failed to meet expectations is staggering. Horrid mis-spellings, erroneous note-taking on the phone, terribly rushed or simply untalented design. But something the authors take the time to do, is make the reader aware of just how bad the failure cakes are by providing context in the way of showing some outstanding cakes. I really love the artful cakes, but as it always said, art is subjective. If there was a mistake made, the artist could just take a “happy trees” path, and decide that was a new element of design. So, the ones that really make my jaw drop are the ones that replicate other things, other looks, existing art… in near perfect. In edible form.

Some examples? Here are some outstanding cakes around the Transformers theme:

Though, I think my favorite are the Threadcakes, edible sweets made to duplicate Threadless shirts’ designs.
What makes these so remarkable, is that the original designers had exactly zero expectation that the design would one day become a cake, so no shortcuts were able to be built into the design. They are absolutely stunning.

In providing this context of failure by showing success, the authors have shown a very keen understanding of how to best communicate to people. Many people, including parents, corporate trainers, bosses, and teachers spend entirely too much time attempting to teach from failure instead of teaching from success. Really, the issue isnt even so black and white. It’s the texture of the comparison that provides the lesson.

I think that the main lesson to be learned here is that nothing beautiful, technically accurate, and usable can ever happen without planning, timing, and attention to detail. On Cake Wrecks, they show their audience how time after time, the manufacturer, producer, cake maker, underestimates the amount of time it will take to meet the customers expectations. But they also show how, when allotted enough time, given enough attention, and by attempting to understand themselves how important this event is to the end user, the artisan is able to create amazing works of art that make everyone, from the customer to the artist, thrilled with the results.

Irritants Applied Daily

September 12th, 2009 by JR Francis 

As a User Design guy, small things really irritate me. Some more often than others.

For instance, I despise that every Credit Card swipe machine at a check out is different. At ones place, you hit cancel to use credit, at others, cancel clears the whole process and you start over. Some places ask for your PIN even after you told it to use credit.

Gas pumps all operate in a different path of events. Some ask 14 questions as slowly as possible before it will even let you pick up the pump handle. Others assume you are using credit when you meant to use debt, or vice versa.

The one that is really grinding on my nerves lately is the anti-virus software program installed by the IT people on my work computer.

Firstly, anything installed on a machine should be able to be edited by the user. This idea that the corporate structure knows better, and a user cant personalize their machine, or install IM software, or drivers and plugins for their browsers is insufferably wrong. Treat your employees like you trust and respect them, and they will return the favor. If they screw up, write them up, re-train them, and if they cant be trusted, fire them. Don’t baby sit.

OK, now on to my real gripe. The software: ESET NOD32 AntiVirus pops up a window several times a day, telling me it updated the virus file. Terrific. Updated virus files are good. But stop telling me. Seriously. Several times a day 1/32nd of my screen or so is popping up with their little notes. I understand making this a default “on” setting, people want to know their software is updating. But why can’t I turn that off?

Let me be more specific, I CAN turn it off, but only for right now. I right click on the icon for the program, Display Alerts and Display Balloon Tips In Taskbar are both checked on. I check them off. Once my PC restarts, that setting goes back to “annoy me every hour or so.” But not just when i restart. Every time the screensaver comes on, the notifications are reset to ON. Every single time. The screensaver is set to come on after 5 minutes. I can be consulting my notes, and the screen saver comes on, resetting this preference.

Why does the setting not save? I am very glad for ESET that they updated my virus definition to version 345.54.3.4545.345.5.301, but I really, really, REALLY don’t need to know every hour.

This is a user frustration that could only have presented itself to a user. QA testing wouldn’t encounter a setting that changes on screensaver. I just cant imagine that in a test script.

I have reported it, several times, and one or two of those times I got the generic form letter telling me thanks for my input, it would be considered. Never have I gotten a real response.

These are the things that bring my irritation level into the red zone.

I realize i have bigger problems. But its the little ones that should be easier to fix.

And thereby, inexcusable.

The Beginning is the End

August 25th, 2009 by JR Francis 

If you have reached this post, then either you are a very early adopter of this site, or you have been looking at archives and have found the very beginning.

So, you have either found the beginning or the end, however you look at it.

Thank you for being here, either way.