A Sane Alternative to Inbox Zero


Inbox Zero — the alleged ideal of emptying your email inbox at the end of every day — is a dumb waste of time.  It’s a trap that makes you feel guilty about your supposed disorganization. It makes you a slave to — not master of — your software. It is a pointless exercise in anal retentiveness. Shall I go on?

I tried Inbox Zero for awhile. It was fun at first and then became Sisyphean. Each new email produced anxiety, like, “how DARE you soil my precious mailbox?” Now, while I am not above using the nuclear option (aka Select-All-Delete), I employ a saner approach to email management.

The most crucial element of my approach is the ability to archive, rather than permanently delete, your email. Gmail does this by default. Outlook has enterprise add-ons like EmailXTender that do the same thing, even when space is restricted for individual users.  Once you have the peace-of-mind of being able to retrieve old emails, you can be totally cavalier about deleting them.

So which ones do you delete, and when? I usually have a live-and-let live attitude toward my mountain of email, deleting most as a I go but also allowing them to pile up for awhile. But there always comes a point at which I’m uncomfortable with the clutter and want it to go away. For you, this point may come once a week, once a month, or once a year. For me it seems to be about every three months. When this point comes, this is what I do:

  1. Sort by sender and delete all the unread newsletters and spam you’re never going to read. Also the ones from that one ass-head who forwards chain letters and six-year-old internet memes.
  2. Sort by date and delete everything older than a month or two. An email that’s been sitting around that long either (a) wasn’t important to begin with, (b) has already been dealt with, or (c) is now so old that it would be embarrassing to deal with. If this step scares you, remember you’re only archiving things, not permanently deleting them.
  3. Go through what’s left. Respond and delete appropriately. If there are some you can’t deal with and don’t want to trash, leave them alone and don’t feel guilty about it. Most likely you’ll trash it when you follow Step #2 again in a few months.

And that’s pretty much it. Since allowing a little inbox chaos in my life, I feel saner and happily imperfect. And I never seem to have a problem finding old emails when I need them.

Want more of my thoughts on Inbox Zero? See my post on Get Off My Lawn.


The Onion, the Jesus Lizard, and Another Reason to Hate SEO

The OnionEvery Onion article starts with a great headline:

“Nation’s Dog Owners Demand To Know Who’s A Good Boy”

“Even CEO Can’t Figure Out How RadioShack Still In Business”

“Man Who Temporarily Disables Facebook Account Deems Self ‘Off The Grid'”

Once  the editors approve a headline, a writer amasses 150 to 900 words to support it. This method has served the Onion well for many years. It’s a perfect system for writing fake news.

The problem is that, in an attempt to game search engines, this is pretty much how purportedly real news organizations work too. The Huffington Post is one such offender, with articles like “What Time Does the Superbowl Start?” whose only purpose is to gain top rankings in Google search results. It’s non-news like this that makes following links to the Huffington Post such a crapshoot: You never know whether you’ll find real news, or a snippet of an article from another publication, or time-wasters not intended for human consumption.

Because HuffPost is successful, there are scores of copycats polluting the Web. Google’s recent algorithm change seeks to address this problem but may not go far enough. After all, a large part of the problem is us. (“What Time Does The Superbowl Start” has over 3,000 “likes” on Facebook.)

The Jesus Lizard, one of my favorite bands, uses the Onion approach for song titles. The bassist and guitarist write music, come up with a name for the song, and then hand it off to the singer, David Yow, to write lyrics. This system has given us gems like “If You Had Lips,” “My Own Urine,” and “Happy Bunny Goes Fluff-Fluff Along” (and these are just from their first LP).

What can be done? Well, until online publications begin randomly substituting headlines with Jesus Lizard song titles—thus putting SEO out of business—we can do our part by not visiting websites that flagrantly appeal to search engines over humans. It won’t be easy; we’ll have to hover over those hyperlinks to see where they go before we click. And for cryin’ out loud, go easy on the “like” button!



Comment Spammers: Get Off My Lawn

This piece was cross-posted on the Get Off My Lawn blog, which you should totally check out.

Comment SpamIf you run a blog, particularly a WordPress blog, comments of this type will be familiar:

“Spot on with this write-up, I really assume this website wants way more consideration. I’ll in all probability be again to read rather more, thanks for that info.”

“I am usually to running a blog and i really respect your content. The article has actually peaks my interest. I am going to bookmark your web site and hold checking for brand spanking new information.”

“Hey, be fond of your website I’ve been understanding a propos this subject every one night.”

If you’re a novice blogger, or just naive, you’re tempted to let these comments stand. Why not? They make it look like people are reading and enjoying your blog, and so what if their English skills aren’t quite up to snuff? And thus the spammers win.

In 2004, blogger Anil Dash proved that he could get a #1 Google search ranking for the phrase “nigritude ultramarine” just by asking people to link to him. Now SEO spammers have automated this process. They (or more accurately their robots) crawl the web for WordPress sites and then post innocuous-seeming comments like the ones above. The common thread among these comments is that the words entered in the “Author” field are always some sought-after SEO phrase (e.g. “xbox live free,” “cialis online”) and the URL goes to some spam website. When the comment gets published, the spam websites rise in search rankings because, as Anil Dash demonstrated, all it takes is inbound links from a wide variety of sources to convince Google that a website is reputable.

This is why SEO is broken. This is why search is starting to break as well. It’s also why I get a dozen emails a day asking me to moderate new comments on my blog—so get off my lawn!

Please tell me what you had for lunch

tubular tacoTwitter often gets dismissed as “people with no life tweeting what they had for lunch.” I’ve been on Twitter since 2007 and have come to value the what-I-had-for-lunch tweet. Knowing what you had for lunch helps me get to know you a little better. And if you post what you had for lunch, you’re probably also posting about the sound your cat makes when she snores or the latest funny thing your kid said. (I am guilty on all counts.)

And this is okay.

Last year I attended a talk by Guy Kawasaki on “How to Use Twitter as a Marketing Weapon.” “I don’t read your tweets,” he said. “I only read the ones that mention me.” If you follow @guykawasaki you’ll see that all he does is broadcast links back to his own website. There’s no right way or wrong way to use Twitter, but his method only applies if you have a business model like his, that is, a link-bait website with lots of advertisements.

For most people on Twitter, tweeting what you had for lunch makes sense. It creates a connection to a human being. And in the aggregate, a few million “lunch tweets” can reveal all sorts of things. For example, Twitter is now being used to make stock-market projections (by tracking consumer sentiment), and to track allergy and influenza outbreaks. These trends would not be trackable if the mundane, everyday tweets were replaced by marketing weapons.

By the way, I had a spinach-and-shrimp tubular taco at Hula Hut today.

5 Things I Learned During My First Year as a Consultant

2010 was my first year as a full-time consultant. Below are a few things I’ve learned.

  1. “You might be a consultant if…” What is a consultant, anyway? It always seemed one of those vague job titles of the unemployed, or of those with something to hide. What made things click for me was a book my former boss gave me as a going-away present. Getting Started in ConsultingIt’s called “Getting Started in Consulting,” by Alan Weiss. I’m allergic to most business and self-help books, but this one really helped me get started, and a lot of the tips below come from this book. I’ve always been a jack-of-all trades, and Weiss’s book helped me see this as an asset. Although I still struggle with telling people what I “do,” the term “consultant” at least starts the conversation. If you have a broad range of skills, both strategic and tactical, that can be deployed for clients, you might be a consultant. In my case those skills mostly relate to online marketing and website development, but that hasn’t stopped me from consulting in other areas.
  2. Charge for value not hours. Probably the chapter in Weiss’s book that everyone skips to is how to price your services. One point that he drills home is that charging by the hour can be a disservice to both you and your clients. I don’t know about you, but after so many years of experience, there are certain tasks that I can complete very quickly. Why should I be penalized for doing something in one hour that might take someone else four? Likewise, I don’t want clients to think about the clock ticking every time they call me. Better to agree upon the project’s scope and price up front. There will still be times when hourly billing is appropriate, but it’s not as often as you think.
  3. Go beyond your comfort zone… In the first couple months of the year, I felt like I had to say yes to everything. I was afraid that if I didn’t say yes the work would dry up and I’d be broke. So I did things like learn Drupal (a web content-management system) in a weekend. It was the right move at the time because now I’m fairly knowledgeable about Drupal and can advise clients on its pros and cons. But…
  4. But don’t go too far. If this same project fell in my lap today, I would turn it down. I learned a lot the first time around, but if I did it again it would be like beating my head against the wall. I’m not a Drupal developer and don’t want to be. But it’s useful to know a little something about Drupal
  5. Enjoy the downtime. When you work a regular desk job, there’s all this pressure to give the illusion of working nonstop, eight hours a day. I say “illusion” because no one works this way. We’re not wired to keep nose to grindstone for such extended periods. The difference for a consultant is that no one is watching to be sure you look busy. The results are all that matter. As long as you can deliver the results—which requires a lot of discipline when you don’t have a boss—it doesn’t matter if you also took time to read a book to your child, or go to the dog park, or watch videos of cats on YouTube.

Feature Creep: Why do we need a clock on our dishwasher?

First, a comic from xkcd:

Tech Support Cheet Sheet by xkcd

I think one of the reasons “not computer people” get so confused is that there is a mystifying array of choices in most applications and operating systems. Most people use only a handful of programs (a word processor, a web browser, maybe an email client) and a tiny fraction of the computing power with which their machines are equipped. This overwhelming complexity of computers is part of a long trend of “feature creep” in electronics and home appliances.

You probably have stuff like this in your house:

  • a microwave with 10 power settings that also can be programmed to defrost 1.3 pounds of pork or pop a bag of popcorn;
  • a dishwasher that can be programmed to clean pots and pans, or just regular dishes, or just the top rack, with or without drying;
  • three or four remote controls for your “home entertainment system.” (Here’s a tip for dealing with that.)

Photo Nicolas Zurcher, source: designinginteractions.com

Most of these objects probably have programmable clocks, too.

Do we really need this stuff? No. But it costs practically nothing to add all these unwanted features, and manufacturers presume — often correctly — that consumers will think these bells and whistles add value.

Back to the “not computer people.” I think the best computer programs and operating systems are the ones that get out of the way of the user. In web browsers, Google Chrome wins the austerity award. The iPhone’s success is evidence that users prefer devices that can be controlled with an index finger. (Just ask my two-year-old.) When it comes to operating systems for desktops and laptops, the two biggest players —  Mac OSX and Windows fill-in-the-blank — each have strengths and weaknesses.

Mac OSX is wonderful but still gets in the way of the user at times. For example, the Finder really doesn’t want you to select and drag files from one window to another. That would be too Microsoft-y, I guess. (Although I’m sure Apple invented the concept.) Instead OSX forces you to view file structures in an endless series of hierarchical menus. It looks elegant onscreen but does not work intuitively.

Many of the problems on Windows machines stem from the bloatware that comes preinstalled. I always do my own OS installs, but most users take what they get, straight out of the box, because they don’t realize they have any choice in the matter. So they get crappy, resource-sucking antivirus programs, trial versions of software they will never use, browser toolbars loaded with advertising, and more. And this is how most users experience computers every day. No wonder they are confused.

(Source: PC Decrapifier)

Before the computer age, you had to pay more for extra features on, say, a vacuum cleaner or an ironing board (it folds up — oooooh!). Now, paradoxically, it’s frequently cheaper to buy the machine loaded with extra features, like the average Wintel laptop at Best Buy. You have to pay more for the less-bloated Mac. (Or the sleek Dyson vacuum.) As for software, although there are free and cheap alternatives to Microsoft products, you need the time and technical aptitude to seek, download and install them. (Same goes for all the flavors of Linux; maybe Ubuntu is the perfect OS, but grandma’s not going to adopt it because there is no multimillion-dollar marketing campaign shoving it down her throat, and the notion of do-it-yourself, community-based support will likely scare the shit out of her.) The result is that the average computer user — who would most benefit from simpler devices  — gets the most complex stuff because they just don’t know any better. And the cycle of confused computer-users continues.

Where does this leave us? In my mind, the perfect microwave has one button: it knows what I want to cook and figures out how long to cook it for. The iPhone/iPad follows this example pretty well. Other computer programs and operating systems (including those from Apple) still have a lot of catching up to do.

Tabbed Browsing: Everyone uses it now, right? Wrong.

When Mozilla Firefox 2.0 rolled out tabbed browsing in October 2006, it was the reason many of us switched from Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and other browsers. That was four years ago, and now all major browsers feature tabs.

If, like me, the web is an integral part of your life, it’s painful to imagine giving up tabbed browsing. But that’s not the case for everyone. A large percentage use tabs infrequently or not at all. How large? That’s what I sought to learn.


I’m not a trained researcher, so this was an illuminating exercise. First, I created a simple form using Google Docs. After a brief description of tabbed browsing, the form had three questions, only the first of which was mandatory:

  1. Do you use tabbed browsing?
  2. Optional: How old are you?
  3. Optional: What web browser do you use, primarily?

I sought to reduce selection bias by promoting the survey within a group of colleagues and family members that I felt represented a range of computer literacy, as well as on Facebook, where my “friends” run the gamut from elementary-school friends to in-laws. I intentionally did not post a link to the survey on Twitter, because my Twitter stream is heavily biased toward technologists.

I had 46 respondents. So, not a large sampling, but enough to tell a story.

Despite my attempts, there may still be a bias toward the more computer literate: Only 40% of respondents use Internet Explorer as their primary web browser, which is below the average in most studies. Assuming non-IE users are more computer literate, this could represent a slight bias.

Of those participants who gave their age (which was most of them), the range was 21 to 65 years old. Most were in their 30s.


Adoption of tabbed browsing among all survey participants

Among all participants, 76% use tabbed browsing “all the time,” 15% “some of the time” and 11% never use it or don’t know what it is. I believe the participants who use tabs “some of the time” probably veer closer to “never” than “always.” So another way of putting this is that 26% of web users do not fully use or understand tabbed browsing.

Adoption of tabbed browsing among Internet Explorer users.

When you break down the results by browser choice, the results are not surprising: Internet Explorer users use tabs less frequently. 58% use tabbed browsing “all the time,” 26% “some of the time” and 16% never use it or don’t know what it is. In other words, 42% of Internet Explorer users do not fully use or understand tabbed browsing.

I think this is because (a) Internet Explorer has not featured tabbed browsing until relatively recently; (b) software installed at the enterprise level tends to be a version or two behind, so people who do most of their web surfing at work are stuck with whatever their IT department permits (making tabs an even more recent phenomenon); and (c) users who download and install alternatives to Internet Explorer are likely to be more computer literate than users who stick with IE.

Adoption of tabbed browsing among Firefox users.

Interestingly, the exact same number of Firefox and IE users responded to the survey (19 each). So this is a good comparison. 79% of Firefox users use tabbed browsing “all the time,” 11% “some of the time” and 11% never use it or don’t know what it is. In other words, 22% of Firefox users do not fully use or understand tabbed browsing. This is a bit surprising considering that tabs are what made Firefox’s reputation as an IE-killer, but I think these figures show how mainstream Firefox is becoming. Not everyone who uses Firefox is a computer geek.

Adoption of tabbed browsing among Safari users.
Adoption of tabbed browsing among Google Chrome users.

I had only five Safari users, and three Chrome users. All of them said they use tabs “all of the time.”

A note about age

I would have guessed that most of the users who do not use tabs are older than those who do. Not quite the case. The two oldest participants stated they do use tabs “some of the time.” Those who never use tabs ranged in age from 33 to 56. Of the eight participants who declined to state their age (who are likely to be older, I’m guessing), seven said they use tabs “all the time” and one “some of the time.”

What does it all mean?

I think many web developers take a lot for granted about their audience. Things that seem as natural as breathing to some are still foreign concepts to others. Users are slow to adopt new technology. Websites aiming for a mass audience need to constantly check their assumptions.

As for this brief stint wearing my market-research hat? It was fun, but clearly more research is needed.  


Enhanced by Zemanta

Three things I learned from 20 minutes of watching my in-laws operate a web browser

  1. The browser’s address bar does not exist. If you’ve spent any time looking at common search terms, you know that people will type “cnn.com” into Google rather than saving a step and typing it into the address bar. For many people the address bar is invisible. And when instructed to type something into it, they (a) they don’t know what it does and (b) don’t know how it works (they will type in spaces and punctuation). This gives me slightly more appreciation for SEO: you’d better be sure your site comes up when its URL and close variations are searched for.
  2. Browsers have several toolbars occupying much of the screen. All web developers know to test in multiple browsers, screen resolutions and operating systems. But how many also test with two or three toolbars installed? This is especially important if you have clients who insist on certain elements being “above the fold.” And who can blame users for having needless toolbars, when something as innocuous as a Flash or Acrobat update will also install a toolbar? Most users don’t know how to get rid of them.
  3. Computers are usually operated in a state of mild fear and anxiety. For many users, every keystroke is fraught with peril. They are afraid that something Really Bad will happen if the wrong button is pushed, that they will be unable to undo. One of the joys of raising kids today is to see how comfortable they are pushing buttons on computers to see what happens. (My two-year-old navigates YouTube on an iPhone better than I do.) We forget that these skills do not come naturally, and even though grandma may have been using email for 10 years, she still might not have any clue how to find something on the Web. The lesson here is timeless: Strip the needless bells and whistles from your design and make it ridiculously easy for users to find what they need.