Never Be More Precise Than Accurate

User experience design is a tricky thing, full of tiny, seemingly insignificant pitfalls that can end up causing major frustration for users. One common pitfall is being more precise than you are accurate. The typical example uses pi: 3 is accurate, but not precise, while 3.6789 is more precise, but less accurate. Accuracy in a system is controlled by a wide array of factors, but generally you’re aware of the limitations in place and you have a general idea of your accuracy. Precision you can control directly through interface design, so you should always have it match your accuracy, never exceed it. Any estimation, extrapolation, aggregation, or rounding can introduce a loss of precision. Digital floating point math is inherently imprecise.

Users naturally presume that any number they’re looking at is as accurate as it is precise. If you show four decimal places, they assume that number is accurate to four decimal places, and rightly so. If you show numbers in millions (37M), users will assume this is accurate to the nearest million. They naturally trust you to present them with accurate information, so they assume that whatever information they’re given is accurate. This is exactly why you should ensure that you don’t present information that you don’t know to be accurate.

Public Airwaves for the Public Good

I just learned about a really important issue, and signed a petition about it. The federal government is on the verge of turning over a huge portion of our public airwaves to companies like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast–who will use them for private enrichment instead of the public good.

These newly available airwaves are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to revolutionize Internet access — beaming high-speed signals to every park bench, coffee shop, workplace, and home in America. Phone and cable companies don’t want this competition to their Internet service–they’d rather purchase the airwaves at auction and sit on them.

You can sign the petition I signed here – urging the government to make sure the public airwaves are used for the public good:

HDCP: beta testing DRM on the public?

Ars has a nice summation of the state of HDCP/HDMI, and how we got there. A lot of this wasn’t news to me, but it’s put into perspective very nicely.

HDCP: beta testing DRM on the public?

When the supposedly uncrackable copy protection used on DVD was indeed cracked back in 1999, two very different messages were received. Hackers and most tech enthusiasts took the crack as yet another sign that these encryption schemes will all, ultimately, fall to the efforts of hackers. The titans of the entertainment industry received another message—a challenge, as it were, to build an even more “robust” content protection system.

Why I hate iTunes, but use it anyway

Let me preface this post by saying I’m not an Apple-hater. In fact, I was once an Apple-lover, a die-hard Mac-user. I had an Apple //c when I was 5, a Mac SE when I was 9, a Quadra 605 when I was 13, and a PowerMac G3 (blue & white) when I was 16. The first time I had used a Windows PC was when I got a job doing tech support for an ISP, so I had to learn Windows both for use as my workstation and for troubleshooting calls. My first Windows PC I built myself when I was 19.

Then MacOS X came out, and I sold my Macs and went straight-PC. I hate MacOS X. I know a lot of people love it, but, well, I disagree. It’s worse than Windows, by a significant margin. But, enough ragging on OSX. I’m here to rag on iTunes.

You see, when I got this nice new job here in ATL and started making decent money, I went out, and I bought me an iPod. Loved the thing. They’re just awesome. Small, lightweight, brilliant interface, good audio quality, good physical quality. Overpriced, but hey. I had a new job.

Some time later, a friend bought me a new iPod Video as a gift, and I gave the old iPod mini away to a friend. I love the new iPod even more than the old one. I even put an iPod adapter in my car so I can hook the iPod directly to the stereo – works great, I can control the iPod from the head unit, and it displays track info on the head unit’s display. Awesome. Love it.

Basically, iPods are the shit.

The problem, however, is in the software. You see, iTunes is godawful. Dreadful. Ghastly. Really, really bad.

It doesn’t work with multiple users. AT ALL. It gives each person a seperate library; purchases from ITMS don’t show up for both users, and neither do playlists; if one person has iTunes open, the other can’t open it or control the other instance, and if you switch to another user from the user that’s running iTunes while it’s playing, the audio goes all choppy until you force-quit the app. The application is a resource-hog. The interface is awful.

I like the iTunes Store – it’s usually cheaper than buying CD’s, and I can make purchases from the comfort of my livingroom and immediately put them on my iPod without having to rip CD’s. I do feel a little gipped on quality settings, and I feel thoroughly gipped by the DRM. You see, I’d happily buy tracks off of ITS all day long, if I could play the damned things in, oh, say, WinAmp. I would buy Apple’s hardware, I would buy Apple’s content – the only part I don’t want is the part they don’t make a penny off of, their free software. But can you remove that piece of the equation? Well, sort of.

You see, you can burn and re-rip your ITMS tracks to get plain MP3s, it’s just a pain to do so. After that, you can play them in any player you want – but you still need iTunes to update your iPod’s library. Of course, you could re-flash the iPod BIOS in order to use a different app to manage it, but then you lose all accessory functionality – e.g., my car-stereo hookup. So, it’s a no-win situation.

Why not switch to another MP3 player, and another online store? Well, all the online stores have DRM issues, and most of them use WMA, which I hate even more than AAC. On top of that, because Apple dominates the player market, they own the accessory market too – a good 90% of accessories are only available for the iPod, or if they work with other players, feature very limited support (i.e., audio only, no support for controlling the iPod via the device or gathering track info from the iPod for display on the device.)

So, I suppose at this point I’m suck with iTunes. But, Apple, you’ve got a choice: either get iTunes into shape, open up access to ITS and iPod to other software, or expect to lose a good hunk of market share as soon as decent alternatives become available. Because I’m already more than ready to jump ship as soon as a decent alternative appears.