Hey Tim, why do you always reply in-line?

As an aside, a colleague @NationBuilder asked me why I always respond to emails in-line. Here was my reply:

BTW – why do you always reply in-line?

In-line reply/comments is an old Internet writing tradition / best-practice from the late eighties. Back in the days of BBS systems and then later on UseNet, cascading comments of four, five, six (or more) out, made it very difficult to figure out who was responding to what in a long conversation among many. So, a protocol emerged:

> > > > > > This is something someone six replies back said.

And this is my response to it.

> > > > This is something someone said four replies back.

And this is my response to it.

SO that becomes:

> > > > > > Granny smith apples are the best.

Are those the green ones I like those.

> > > > Macintosh apples are the best.

Pretty color, but they don’t taste very good.

The practice was a usability improvement to make it easier to read email chains with cascading comments.  It was widely used by writers who wanted their material to be more widely read and respected, and by those who were sticklers for readability (now called usability), and also used by former calligraphers-turned-fastidious-formatting-neat-freaks. I qualified as all three.

As the masses trickled onto the Internet, they slowly adopted the practice as well. Everything was going great until AOL arrived on the scene. That was pretty much the end of it. People who had been on the Internet for a decade, who had been exchanging emails for years and slowly cultivating these best practices – some of whom built their own modems from parts bought at radio shack, were suddenly *surrounded* by people using a service who’s motto was, I shit yee not: “America Online: So easy to use, no wonder it’s number one.”

Regardless, the practice was stubbornly continued by purists and old-timers.

In the mid 2000s, Robert Fisk adopted a form of this on his blog. If he disagreed with another blogger, he would copy their blog post, paste it into his editor, and then issue his refutation, line-by-line. Wikipedia says: This practice was eventually nicknamed “Fisking“, after Robert Fisk, who would use this particular method to deliver point-by-point criticism highlighting perceived errors, or disputing the analysis in a statement, article, or essay. Fisk was so good at it that “fisking” came to denote the practice of “savaging an argument and scattering the tattered remnants to the four corners of the internet”.

Anyhoo, I’m sure this is waaaaay more than you wanted to know. Who knows, maybe I’ll make this into a blog post.

NationBuilder and Facebook – best practices

There’s been a recent revelation that Facebook has been throttling down the online presence of Facebook Pages (pages by organizations, businesses, celebrities, etc. that Facebook users can “Like”) and crimping the ability of owners of those pages to reach their respective fans:

Spring of 2012 was when bloggers, non-profits, indie bands, George Takei, community theaters, photographers, caterers, artists, mega-churches, high schools, tee-shirt vendors, campus coffee shops, art galleries, museums, charities, food trucks, and a near infinite variety of organizations; individuals from all walks of life; and businesses, both large and small, began to detect—for it was almost imperceptible at first—that the volume was getting turned down on their Facebook reach. Each post was now being seen only by a fraction of their total “fans” who would previously have seen them.

Some are describing this as “broken on purpose:”

It’s no conspiracy. Facebook acknowledged it as recently as last week: messages now reach, on average, just 15 percent of an account’s fans. In a wonderful coincidence, Facebook has rolled out a solution for this problem: Pay them for better access.

As their advertising head, Gokul Rajaram, explained, if you want to speak to the other 80 to 85 percent of people who signed up to hear from you, “sponsoring posts is important.”

In other words, through “Sponsored Stories,” brands, agencies and artists are now charged to reach their own fans—the whole reason for having a page—because those pages have suddenly stopped working.

This is a clear conflict of interest. The worse the platform performs, the more advertisers need to use Sponsored Stories. In a way, it means that Facebook is broken, on purpose, in order to extract more money from users. In the case of Sponsored Stories, it has meantraking in nearly $1M a day.

I like to simplify things for my clients. Broken on purpose is cute, but I’ll be calling it a bait-and-switch because that’s what it looks like to me. (Extortion also sounds rather apt) Regardless of the terminology, the conclusion is clear: it’s a dick move by a rapacious corporation. As such, I’ve lately been recommending to my clients that they approach Facebook differently than they’ve done in the past.

In short: Use Facebook to drive people to your site, never vice-versa.

On your Nation (your NationBuilder site), you control your outreach. You decide your message. You even have control over what a particular set of people see, while showing another set something different. You know who went where, what they saw, and what they did. You have the ability to sign up people for events, ask for donations, sign them up for email, etc. Your Facebook Page provides none of this. Think of it like this: your site is your home and your Facebook Page is there to invite people over to hang out.  🙂

NationBuilder makes it effortless to display a Facebook Like Box.  By default, a NationBuilder user can have this box appear in the sidebar of their two-column pages. Since it’s so easy, most orgs with a Facebook Like Page opt for it.

I’m not going to tell you not to do this. I’m going to tell you the best way to do it:

(Before we start, if you are not using the blog on your Nation, start using it. Your blog is where you post anything relevant that you think your users might want to see. If you’re only using your blog for press releases or official announcements, then you might as well draw cobwebs on it, too, because nobody’s going to look at it, much less follow it or subscribe to it with RSS. Want to know what to put on your blog? Ask yourself: would you add it to your Facebook Page? If yes, then add it to your blog in a blog post.)

When you want to share something with your audience, follow these steps:

  1. post it on your blog
  2. copy the link to your new blog post
  3. go to your Facebook Page
  4. post the link to your blog post on your Facebook Page. You can write a little something about it, too.
That’s it! Simple, right?  It’s simple, but it’s profoundly better.

Each blog post is an opportunity to get eyeballs away from Facebook and onto your site. Your Facebook Page should have no original content, it should only consist of links to the original content that’s posted on your blog (or events page, if you’re posting an event).

Now, a word about the different types of Facebook plugins. You have a few options.

I always recommend the Facebook Like button without reservation:

When a user is on your site and clicks Like, a thumbnail of your website appears in the user’s timeline. Free advertising!

The Facebook Like Box is to the right and you have some control over what it displays. You can have one with an Activity Stream, one with faces, or one with both. I recommend the one with faces only.  The Activity Stream is huge leak in your bucket. It invites people to click on something that will take them away from your site and land them on Facebook, which is likely where they will stay to read all the new updates from their friends. They might not even remember to come back to your site.

Again, your Facebook page should exist for one purpose only: to drive traffic back to the your site. And once they are there, you should do what you can to keep them there and minimize anything that might send them away. The Activity Stream is so big a leak that I’m surprised it doesn’t make its own sucking sound like a sink draining out the last bit of water.

Now, some organizations do this exceedingly well. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Facebook Page, for example, has nothing on it that wasn’t already posted somewhere on their site. Every link goes back to EFF.org.


  1. Post everything to your blog that seems interesting
  2. Post each link to each blog post on your Facebook Page. Don’t forget to Tweet the link, too!
  3. Never post something first on your Facebook Page.
  4. Never, ever post something only on your Facebook Page.

UPDATE: The NationBuilder blog beat me to the punch by a couple months. Dammit!

Form troubles on Febreze website

When I have a product question, I like to go to the product’s website to find the answer.  It’s not uncommon to not be able to find the information you’re looking for: a startling number of sites don’t have FAQs; the information is organized specifically to support sales & marketing.  That’s just the reality these days, since the website in most companies has been folded into the marketing department.

But every once in a while, I run into a website flaw so annoying it should serve as an example to others: “don’t do this every dumb thing.”

Alex and I have a new dog. We’re finding that even though we are washing him once a week, the dog smell starts to be noticeable on day five after the bath. Alex suggested we get some febreze. I like the idea in theory: something we can spray on our stuff that neutralizes the odor. However, in practice, I crossed out febreze from the list of things I would ever buy because the perfume in the product is so overwhelmingly heavy. The perfume in febreze is  so strong it gives me a headache. It’s not as bad as Glade air “freshener” but I put it in the same category: so-called “fresh” smells that come from a can are never fresh and never “light.”

I heard an interesting story about febreze just a week ago on a podcast. The takeaway from the story (for me, anyways) was that febreze, in its original incarnation, had no scent. It was simply an odor blocker. That’s exactly what I want: A scent-free version of febreze that won’t give me headaches from the cloying, noxious, chemical perfume smell they add so it sells in the car-on-the-lawn states.

febreze pet odor eliminatorSo, as one does, I went to the febreze website to find out if they offered such a thing. I saw every conceivable added scent, even a “pet odor” version, but that says “scented” on it. No dice.

I did, however, find a contact form, so at least I could ask my question on this Saturday morning and perhaps have an answer sometime on Monday.

After filling out all sixteen fields of the form and hitting submit, the form spits back the dumbest, most useless of error descriptions:

Febreze website contact form error messageThis is god damn annoying. I took the time to fill out the whole form, only to be defeated by some half-baked javascript. This is a nightmare from a user-experience perspective. The  form has not been thought out. I should never see a message like this. And if it happened to me, you can bet it’s happening to other people.

San Francisco Fire Credit Union account signup user interface issues

I signed up for an account today with San Francisco Fire Credit Union. I wrote about this decision here. (Since this is a UI post, I want to keep the political stuff separate.)

I like writing about UI issues. It’s often the only way to adequately describe a problem. It also saves the call center from having to listen to my complaining.

So, let’s dive in.

The new-account signup process is pretty straightforward:

  • User is informed there will be a five dollar fee to open up account.
  • User selects what type of accounts he wants (I picked four of them: checking, savings, money market, and a really neat one called “holiday savings” that’s basically a Christmas fund)
  • User picks password
  • User offered overdraft protection
  • User shown TOS, EULA, Fees, Disclosures and Agreements (which, by the way, were in plain English)
  • User fills out personal information on successive screens
  • Review page
  • Several pages where they check user’s identity against others with the same name (this was a series of yes/no questions)
  • Account approved screen
  • User presented with offer for Home Equity line of credit (I said no)
  • User selects how to fund new account (Credit Card and some other choice, I forget)
  • User inputs payment information
  • User presented with Deposit Information and final approval button

This seems like a lot of steps but it’s really not, considering you’re opening a bank account and they need all this info. And it was mostly pretty quick.

I ran into the first problem with picking a password.

SFFCU uses a 1990’s password philosophy: between 6 and 10 characters. This is insecure. My Wells Fargo password is 32 characters long.

I don’t want to make light of this issue by referring to a cartoon, but XKCD explains this better than I ever could:

Click to see original

Encountering low character limits on passwords is aggravating, especially when it’s for a site that stores my financial information. It causes fear, uncertainty and doubt in the minds of users who are savvy when it comes to security – a population that is growing. I give thumbs-up for allowing special characters but I’d really like to see the limit increased north of 22 characters. There’s no reason not to (it’s not like longer passwords take up a whole lot of space).

The next issue I ran into was inputing payment information to fund the account.

There’s a javascript running on this page which prevents me from copy/pasting my credit card information into the fields on this page. Obviously, this is not a big deal, but it is a little annoying. It means I have to leave the computer, find my wallet, get the credit card out, and input the numbers manually and hope I don’t make a mistake. I tried to turn off the javascript but that just broke the page altogether. Arggghh!

The next issue I ran into was at the end screen, User presented with Deposit Information and final approval button:

I didn’t realize it cost five bucks each to open all of these accounts. I got the impression from the first screen that it would cost only five bucks total. No big deal, I’ll simply back up and un-select all but one account. But here’s where I ran into an issue that made me have to start over from the beginning: I could only back up three screens, to the funding selection screen:

There is no way to back up before the Funding Selection screen. The user has to abandon the process and start over. Again, not a big deal, and probably an oversight somewhere. Still, I can’t imagine this doesn’t cause at least a small amount of form-abandonment.

There are also a few CSS issues here and there that tell me the UI designer did not conduct sufficient cross-browser testing, issues like these:




Overall, except for the password limitation, I don’t think any of this is terrible. Although these sorts of issues would be unforgivable in a national bank like Wells Fargo (the bank I’m leaving), SFFCU is a local Credit Union and they probably do not have the resources to conduct any user testing of their UI. But I think they should find a way. User testing is important. Sometimes it can suss out issues.

Regardless, I’m now an SFFCU account holder. I’m hoping I’ll be a happy one. I never had any issues with Wells – their Haight branch is super friendly and I like the convenience of them being so close by. But it’s time to put my money where my mouth is and support a local business.


I was sent a PDF of a signature card to fax in. I printed it out on my scanner/printer, filled it out, scanned it back into the scanner/printer, and emailed the PDF.

A short time later, I got an email back saying,

HI Tim,

Please fax it to us or send it. For security reasons, I cannot except a scanned emailed version of your signature card for any emailed membership information can be intercepted. Please fax to 41-674-4691 or send to: 3201 California Street San Francisco, CA 94118.

Thank you,

This is hilarious!

It’s 2011. I haven’t seen a fax machine in almost a decade and it’s been well over a decade since I’ve used one. Does anyone still send Faxes? We have email now!  Email is better. The resolution is limitless. It’s in color. It doesn’t use paper unless you tell it to. Fax machines were a plague and we are good to be rid of them.

The part about intercepting an attachment is interesting. I suppose it is possible if the email is going from a POP-account to another POP-account and you had one of the servers in between, AND if you knew when the email was going to be sent, AND if you could man-in-the-middle the files, alter them, and send them on quickly (a lot of if’s). But  a gmail attachment?  gmail has never had an interception. When gmail is proven to be insecure, it will be on the front page of the New York Times.

I suppose I can go through the trouble of signing up for an efax account and go through exactly the same process: emailing efax my document and having efax send the fax machine a fax of my document. But efax charges to send faxes.

I considered asking her to print out the email, walk it over to the fax machine and drop it in the received tray, but I doubt she would get my pithy humor. Also, I don’t like to mock underlings for dumb decisions by management. Often these security rules are industry best-practices and are just part of the institution.

I think the best way to handle this will be to rely on snail mail. It’s half a buck and a trip down to the mail box and I guess I could use the exercise. I’ll grab a latte on the way back.


I just got a call from a very nice lady who told me that they can, in fact, accept my signature card by email. She called me, on a Sunday night no less, to tell me not to go through the trouble of snail-mailing my card in.


I have been a member of this bank for less than 6 hours and I’m already loving them!

I will be turning up the heat on my friends to jump ship from their to0-big-to-fail banks.

Facebook + Safari FAIL

My damn Safari browser is supposed to stay logged in to Facebook, right?

8:30 AM. I follow a link in Gmail to a facebook comment. I am greeted by this:

And then a couple hours later, when I am checking my email, I see another link to another Facebook comment. So I follow it. I get this screen instead:

and then again at 2:30, following another link in my email to FB:

….and again at 5:00 PM:

Obviously, it’s easy to put in my password. But I’d rather the damn browser save it. Like Firefox does.

Stupid Safari.