Featured Story: Election

Monday, November 26, 2007

An Alarming Situation

From San Francisco / New York

There are two alarms which wake me up in the morning, both of them unreliable in their own unique ways. The first is a cheap plastic one I picked up in Peru when my previous one crapped out. I travelled for a year without a watch, but the number of bleary-eyed 4am rises made an alarm clock a necessity. The alarm on the Peruvian clock is accurate to the minute, give or take 20, which means I have to make sure to set it especially early, then curse it when it goes off and deprives me of those last precious minutes of sleep. It's all the more dangerous for not having a snooze button — several times I've woken up an hour late with no recollection of the earlier 15 seconds of semi-consciousness it took to turn the alarm off.

The second alarm is on my phone. It's much fancier than the standard beeping function that comes on other phones. Somewhere between 9:30 and 10:30 I get a wake-up call, usually in the form of a Spanish-speaking lady asking for a SeƱor Cristobal. It's never the same woman who calls twice, although the call is always from Florida, leading me to believe there is a personal assistant service based there with an unusually high turnover rate.

This level of personalised attention is rare in the modern world, and though impressive, some days I receive 3 calls while on others I don't receive any, making the utility of the service questionable at best. In fact, the reliability seems to be worsening. Two days ago my phone alarm went off at 9:30 in the evening, and I picked up to find someone calling from Chile who took quite a bit of persuading before she accepted that I was not, and did not know anyone by the name of, Eduardo.

The unintended side effect of all this is that when an unknown number calls my phone, I pick up expecting to hear Spanish. It's funny how your mind makes nonsense of English words if it's expecting to hear another language, and responding in Spanish asking the caller to repeat because I didn't understand has resulted in more than a few confused conversations.

At this point I've decided that the Spanish alarm service isn't much use, but waking up is coincidentally when I am least able to speak coherently in another language, so I have yet to be able to unsubscribe. Finding a way around this catch-22 is my current challenge, and I'm hesitant to bring a 3rd alarm clock into the mix.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

One Month Later

I'm sitting behind a large one-way mirror with computers and monitors strewn all over the desks around me. The lights are off, and on the other side of the glass is a brightly-lit room with two people sitting in it. If the table was bare metal and the people sat facing each other, it might be a police interrogation room. Unfortunately for the thrill-seeking side of me, I'm taking notes for a usability study rather than a murder investigation.

I made the move to New York 4 weeks ago. In that time the weather has gone from making me sweaty in a t-shirt to giving me chills walking around in a winter jacket and scarf. I'm living in one place but freelancing, which provides me with the same sense of instability I had over the last year moving to a different town every few days.

Watching the participants try to use the virtual world being tested, I'm reminded why I like this work so much. Also in the room watching the proceedings is one of the developers of the virtual world, and hearing his occasional exclamations as the participants get confused is one of the most satisfying parts of the job. The first point of surprise is inevitably when people click through all the instructions the programmer painstakingly included, explaining in step-by-step detail how to use the program.

"Why did they skip all the text? Why didn't they read what was on screen?"

Bridging the gap between how the programmer assumes people will use their creation and how everyone else actually uses it is what it's all about. A lot of the time all the advice from a usability expert isn't half as effective as having a programmer sit and watch someone else use their creation for several hours.

Particularly interesting is when a participant like the one I'm watching comes in — someone in their 30s who hasn't used the internet in years and who has no email address. It's easy to forget people like that exist. Especially in a wired area of the country where real life soap operas such as NYGirlOfMyDreams.com make up the background noise of life.

As I make my way towards a normal working life, I'm enjoying having some of the important pieces fall into place. I now know where to go for photography equipment, and having discovered a nearby developing studio, I'm excited again about taking photos. On that note, the following are from the last month.