A blog by the Brick Factory The Brick Factory

Video should always be opt in

CNN.com is the main national type of news site I visit on the web.  I do so out of habit and because I really dislike the websites of alternatives like MSNBC and Fox News

But they are starting to lose me due to the way they are using video.

(1) Our office is an open space and so to watch videos I either have to annoy my co-workers or unplug my headphones from my iPod and plug them into my computer.  And that's when I don't have my computer muted.

Due to this I really don't watch many  videos during the day.  I'm going to CNN to read news articles, blog entries and such.  For text.

So what's the problem?  CNN is now all about video and its hard to find the text.    Of the items on the homepage, roughly 50% are web videos (see graphic on right for an example). 

I don't mind that they have lots of video.  That's great.  But I wish it all wasn't so intermingled.  Having to scan and discard 50% of the content is not a pleasant user experience.  I'll probably switch.

(2) CNN is still displaying videos in Windows Media Player format (which means I've had problems playing them in Firefox).  And they are still popping up their videos in controlled windows using javascript.  I hate that.  Please switch to Flash (which more people can see anyway) and stop using pop up windows.   You just shouldn't do that stuff anymore.

CNN isn't the only one making this mistake.  The John McCain for President site does as well by devoting pretty much its entire homepage to video clips and surprising users with video on what look like normal buttons/links at the bottom of the page (you are either muted or yelling at my whole office dude). 

In summary, I think people are going a bit too far in an effort to embrace the whole web video thing.  Video is a great and powerful thing, but not all the time and not in every circumstance.  Please remember that sometimes your users just want to read some text and move on.  Video should always be opt in.

Customer Service and Jet Blue

Blog entries about customer service seemed to be following me around yesterday so I figured I’d write a blog post about it. 

First, I read “Seven steps to remarkable customer service” over on the extraordinary blog, Joel On Software.  Joel is the head of Fog Creek Software which makes the excellent FogBugz bug tracking software.  The post is specifically about support for software products, but is relevant to anyone who does customer service in their job (which is just about everyone really, isn’t it?).

His first tenet is perhaps the most valuable: fix everything two ways.  He writes:

Almost every tech support problem has two solutions. The superficial and immediate solution is just to solve the customer’s problem. But when you think a little harder you can usually find a deeper solution: a way to prevent this particular problem from ever happening again.

After reading that I immediately came across an example of a company attempting to fix a problem two ways.  Due to ice storms, JetBlue has had to cancel a large number of its flights (23%) over the last week or so.  People were stranded in airports.  Folks sat on runways for 8 hours.  Your classic planes, trains and automobiles nightmare.  Jetblue was and is under a barrage of criticism for the their poor handling of the situation.

So what are they doing?  Trying to fix the problem two ways.

To address the specific customer problem, they are reimbursing the people who were caught up in the delays.  Here’s the payment schedule according the Consumerist:

• Delays 1-2 hours: $25 off a future flight
• Delays 2-4 hours: $50 off a future flight
• Delays 6+ hours: Free round-trip ticket

To solve the long term program, JetBlue has announced a Customer Bill of Rights.  Here is a list of some of the changes that have been taken to prevent this kind of event from occurring again:

• All non-airport crew members of JetBlue will be badged and ready to go if needed to be called upon
• Increasing number phone lines open for changing reservations
• Tripling the size of the group that schedules pilots and stewardesses

To announce the Bill of Rights, CEO David Needleman posted a video on YouTube explaining the plan of action (embedded after the jump).  The YouTube video has been viewed 33,000 times so far.  A nice use of social media I think, although they should have done a better job with the web during the crisis itself

All of this sounds great but won’t mean much if the changes don’t work. We’ll see.

Anyway, give the piece from Joel on Software a read.


Jeff Jarvis Launches New Site on the "YouTube Campaign"

I’m not sure whether I’m the first or last to notice this, but Jeff Jarvis of Buzz Machine has launched a new blog (Prezvid.com) dedicated to what he calls the YouTube campaignPrezvid has been added to my feed reader. 

To give you a taste, here is a video Jarvis put together offering John McCain some unsolicited advice on his use of video on the web.  Good advice. Romney and other should take it as well.


Flash Video Players

Since the launch of YouTube, Flash has become the dominate video format.   The reasons are pretty simple:

(1) A higher percentage of people have Flash installed on their computers than competing formats like Windows Media Player or Real.  As of December 2006, 94.2% of folks in the US had at least Flash 8 installed on their computers. 

(2) Flash makes it easy to embed videos on your website.  Hence YouTube and the whole viral video craze. 

At this point I think it is safe to say that Flash is the industry standard for online video.  As a web development firm, we've started serving our videos in Flash almost exclusively.

I was interviewed for a story in Shoot Online a few weeks back on how Presidential candidates are using web video for their announcements (it is behind a pay wall now).  My contribution to the piece was pretty forgettable but an executive at Brightcove nicely defined the three ways you can do web (Flash) videos online these days:

(1) You can just post your video on YouTube for free and embed it into your site.

(2) You can build your own branded (or not) Flash player and host the videos on your own servers.

(3) You can host your videos using more feature rich hosting services like  Brightcove, Permission TV, Revver and Blip.tv.  Some of these services charge you, some don't. 

For me, #1 is out.  YouTube is great, but it is not appropriate for all videos.  The quality is kind of bad, their terms of service are a bit scary (see Ze Frank on this) and you don't have much control over the presentation of your video.  For me, YouTube is more of a distribution channel than a video hosting/player solution.  It can be used to complement options #2 and #3.

We've done option #2 plenty and even developed ways to include embed code in client-branded players.  We'll probably still do this for certain folks but it is sort of a pain.  I also feel like by doing this we are fighting a losing battle – our own branded players aren't able to keep up with all the cool features others are using. 

So basically we've settled on option #3 and are playing around with a variety of players.  Read/Write Web has a good breakdown of all the options.  The choices are sort of overwhelming and new features are coming out pretty much every day.  Channels available right in the videoEmbed codes within the videoThe ability to put your own ad or call to action at the end of the video itself

My current favorite is blip.tv.  It is easy to use, it has all the features I want, the player is unobtrusive and it will have the ability to embed my own ad at the end of the video in a few weeks

Mechanical Turk Reviews WP's On Being

According to Wikipedia, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is a tool that “enables computer programs to co-ordinate the use of human intelligence to perform tasks which computers are unable to do.” It enables companies and individuals to posts tasks and set an amount they are willing to pay for the tasks completion. Qualified users can then scan these tasks and complete them at their leisure to stave off boredom or to make a little money.

The tasks can be manually posted by individual. Say if you want to pay someone to write a blog post or translate a document for you on a one off basis. Or you can tap into Mechanical Turk’s API and automatically have your computer program interact with MTurk. This allows companies to efficiently send requests to Mechanical Turk and fetch the data back. Companies are using MTurk in this way for tasks like the creation of transcripts of speeches and podcasts. You can see some success story here.

Ajit and I have been playing with Mechanical Turk a bit the last few days as we are thinking of tapping into it for one of our projects using the MTurk API. I think there is a lot of potential here.

In reviewing the interface I noticed a lot of people asking folks to write blog posts. Out of curiosity, I decided to use the service to pay three people $1 each to write a review of the Washington Post’s recent foray into video journalism, On Being.

Below are the three reviews so you can judge the quality yourself.