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Aaron Schuman

On the windowsill above my desk sits a postcard-sized portrait of my mother, made in a Detroit department store in 1941, when she was just one-year-old.  Whenever it catches my eye, I’m always struck by how strange it is that, despite the generic studio setup, the soft even lighting, the baby-faced cheeks and the wide-eyed gaze, I can distinctly recognize her in the picture.  Seventy-two years later, not only do I see a little girl with a white ribbon in her hair; I can also discern the woman she became (and is) decades later, and even perceive faint traces of myself in her features and expression.  It’s as if the photograph conveys not just the present that it portrays, nor simply represents a memento from the past today, but in some mysterious way has always – ever since its making – contained very subtle intimations of the future, of her future, as well.

That said, I am fully aware that everything that I now glean from this image is entirely retrospective.  And fundamentally I know that this is not the purpose of such standardized childhood portraiture, nor does it in any way reflect the intentions of the photographers who make such images.  Instead, their motives are to reassure parents and relatives that the children sitting before their camera are safe, sweet, healthy, happy, and in a sense, forever young; to preserve and protect their subjects’ youth, and in many ways subdue any traces of their approaching adulthood.  To prove the point, each year when my own children return from school with similar portraits of themselves – in front of the same pleated backgrounds, under the same even light – I am endlessly frustrated by the fact that no matter how hard I try, I always fail to see how these pictures might predict how my children will look, or who they will become, in twenty, fifty or even seventy-two years time.  Nevertheless, with my mother’s picture in mind, I cannot help but suspect that somewhere, even in the tiniest details, they must carry within them this potential.

Nelli Palomäki

Nelli Palomäki

At 27 with my dad, 2009

Strikingly, the Finnish portrait photographer Nelli Palomäki – who often focuses on similar subjects:  poised children and young adults – has an uncanny gift for tapping into just such potential.  Whilst acutely engaging with her subjects in the immediate present, her images also bear the feeling of perpetually looking forward, and are hauntingly pregnant with intonations of the possible future-selves of her subjects.  As the artist and curator Timothy Persons notes in his introduction to Palomäki’s recent monograph, Breathing the Same Air, “Whether these photographs are of children or young adolescents they all share a knowledge beyond their years.”  Palomäki has said herself, “I like to play this game, imagining where they will live and what they will look like in twenty years time,” and her photographs adamantly insist that the viewer share this curiosity, and join in the game alongside her.

Of course, it’s vital to recognize that despite their convincing nature, the ghostly echoes of maturity that reverberate around Palomäki’s young subjects are in fact both imposed and imagined; that as much as these pictures might resemble their sitters today and perhaps in future, they are also self-portraits – reflections of momentary yet intense relationships that the photographer herself has constructed and nurtured.  “Each and every portrait I have taken is a photograph of me too,” Palomäki acknowledges, “What I decide to see, or more likely, how I confront the things that I see, inevitably determines the final image.”  Palomäki generally hidden but subtly potent presence within each photograph, and her determination to portray something that profoundly speaks not only to the past, but also more specifically to a shared present and a potential future is the underlying key to their power, and re-positions photography’s relationship to memory and notions of possibility – the past and the future – in a remarkably affecting way. At 27 with my Dad (2009) – by no accident the opening image of Breathing the Same Air, and one of the few in which the artist herself appears – makes both the intensity of the present and the time-spanning scope found within her portraiture poignantly clear.  As she herself explains it:

“I never had the courage to take a portrait of my father. Maybe something would happen to him after the picture been taken.  Or maybe I would succeed in revealing something that I didn’t want to be seen…We don’t hug in our family.  We’re not so close in that way…So it felt somehow so forced, suddenly to stand there, like that, him holding me.  But after developing the film I realized something.  My dad was actually bigger than me – a lot taller, and maybe slightly wiser too.  Suddenly my role as a daughter was clear.  My father’s hand on my shoulder was protective.  I looked like a fifteen-year-old child.  I believe my father realized the same thing…We didn’t fight after the portrait.  This is a portrait of my father. This is exactly how I want to remember him.”

Nelli Palomäki is a photographer living and working in Helsinki, Finland.

Aaron Schuman is a photographer, writer, curator, and the editor of SeeSaw Magazine.

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An anonymous reader writes "Hackers can influence real-time traffic-flow-analysis systems to make people drive into traffic jams or to keep roads clear in areas where a lot of people use Google or Waze navigation systems, a German researcher demonstrated at BlackHat Europe. 'If, for example, an attacker drives a route and collects the data packets sent to Google, the hacker can replay them later with a modified cookie, platform key and time stamps, Jeske explained in his research paper (PDF). The attack can be intensified by sending several delayed transmissions with different cookies and platform keys, simulating multiple cars, Jeske added. An attacker does not have to drive a route to manipulate data, because Google also accepts data from phones without information from surrounding access points, thus enabling an attacker to influence traffic data worldwide, he added.' 'You don't need special equipment for this and you can manipulate traffic data worldwide,' Jeske said."

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Moves launches today as a free iPhone app available worldwide to help people track their physical activity and keep a daily journal of it.

Moves app

The main Moves interface is a neat-looking personal daily timeline, with proportional representation of time spent walking, running, biking, and in transit, in a vertical display that links together all the locations visited within 24 hours.

The app uses adaptive techniques to minimize battery drain by drawing cell-tower data most of the time, and then activating GPS when the accelerometer moves in a recognized way.

It’s made by a Helsinki-based company called ProtoGeo that is led by designer Sampo Karjalainen, a founder of kids’ virtual world Habbo Hotel.

Karjalainen thinks Moves can be a viable alternative to the Fitbit, Nike FuelBand and Jawbone Up, because it doesn’t require people to buy an additional device and keep it charged.

And besides, wristband-based sensors are not terribly sophisticated, anyway — many people find that they only approximate a measure of their physical activity, and they do a terrible job of tracking cycling, since it’s a stiff-wristed sport.

I was particularly interested in the app because I think it’s an example of passively harvesting personal data for the user’s benefit.

So the two big questions are 1) Is Moves accurate? And 2) Will it kill my phone battery?

This isn’t a product review, but I’d say that in two weeks of using the app my answers would be 1) It’s pretty accurate, but not as accurate as constant GPS tracking. And 2) It will have an impact on your battery, but not as bad as constant GPS tracking.

You may still want to use an additional app like Endomondo or RunKeeper to track workouts. I found that Moves was particularly bad at counting my mileage on the treadmill at the gym.

Karjalainen told me that Moves users can hold their phones normally — in their pocket or bag is fine — and the service has learned patterns of movement that correspond to various activities.

His goal is for Moves to be an everyday, mainstream tool to make people more conscious of their physical activity. It’s all about low-effort record-keeping. For instance, a future feature that Karjalainen mentioned would be interspersing photos from the day throughout the timeline.

But there is nothing if not competition in this space. Passive tracking seems likely to be a future feature of Google’s Google Now Android personal assistant app, which quietly launched a monthly activity summary of walking and biking.

I’d previously experimented with using Alohar Mobile’s Placeme app to passively track all the locations I visited on a daily basis, but Moves’ timeline interface seems more interesting and informative than a map of everywhere I’ve been (plus, Moves has a map view, too).

ProtoGeo has raised $1.6 million in seed funding from Lifeline Ventures and PROfounders.

 

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156px-Linus_Torvalds

The Millenium Technology Prize, awarded every two years, is a Finnish award designed “to improve the quality of life and to promote sustainable development-oriented research, development and innovation.” Sir Tim Berners-Lee won the prize in 2004. The finalists this year are Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, who has been contributing to the area of stem cell research, and Linux creator Linus Torvalds. The 2012 Grand Prize winner will be announced on June 13 in Helsinki, Finland.

From the press release:
In recognition of his creation of a new open source operating system kernel for computers leading to the widely used Linux operating system. The free availability of Linux on the Web swiftly caused a chain-reaction leading to further development and fine-tuning worth the equivalent of 73,000 man-years. Today millions use computers, smartphones and digital video recorders like Tivo run on Linux. Linus Torvalds’ achievements have had a great impact on shared software development, networking and the openness of the web, making it accessible for millions, if not billions.

I had the opportunity to ask Linus a few questions by email. Hopefully I didn’t simply create a nerd version of The Chris Farley Show.

Scott Merrill: You use a MacBook Air because you want a silent, quality computer. Why is it that Apple has the corner on this market? Have you considered using your fame or some portion of your fortune to try to remedy this?

Linus Torvalds: You *really* don’t want me to start designing hardware. Hey, I’m a good software engineer, but I’m not exactly known for my fashion sense. White socks and sandals don’t translate to “good design sense”

That said, I’m have to admit being a bit baffled by how nobody else seems to have done what Apple did with the Macbook Air – even several years after the first release, the other notebook vendors continue to push those ugly and *clunky* things. Yes, there are vendors that have tried to emulate it, but usually pretty badly. I don’t think I’m unusual in preferring my laptop to be thin and light.

Btw, even when it comes to Apple, it’s really just the Air that I think is special. The other apple laptops may be good-looking, but they are still the same old clunky hardware, just in a pretty dress.

I’m personally just hoping that I’m ahead of the curve in my strict requirement for “small and silent”. It’s not just laptops, btw – Intel sometimes gives me pre-release hardware, and the people inside Intel I work with have learnt that being whisper-quiet is one of my primary requirements for desktops too. I am sometimes surprised at what leaf-blowers some people seem to put up with under their desks.

I want my office to be quiet. The loudest thing in the room – by far – should be the occasional purring of the cat. And when I travel, I want to travel light. A notebook that weighs more than a kilo is simply not a good thing (yeah, I’m using the smaller 11″ macbook air, and I think weight could still be improved on, but at least it’s very close to the magical 1kg limit).

SM: I wasn’t so much asking why you haven’t designed your own hardware — I fully understand people playing to their own strengths. It’s taken considerable time for hardware manufacturers to recognize Linux as a viable platform, and today more and more OEMs are actively including or working toward Linux compatibility. Surely there’s an opportunity there for the global Linux community to influence laptop design for the betterment of everyone? I know it’s not your passion, and I respect that. Do you have any suggestions or guidance on ways we can collectively influence these kinds of things?

LT: I think one of the things that made Apple able to do this was how focused they’ve been able to stay. They really have rather few SKU’s compared to most big computer manufacturers, and I think that is what has allowed them to focus on those particular SKU’s and make them be better than the average machine out there.

Sure, they have *some* variation (different amounts of memory etc), but compare the Apple offerings to the wild and crazy world of HP or Lenovo or Toshiba. Other hardware manufacturers tend to not put all their eggs in a single (or a few) baskets, and even then they tend to hedge their bets and go for fairly safe and boring on most offerings (and then they sometimes make the mistake of going way crazy for the “designer” models to overcompensate for their boring bread-and-butter).

That kind of focus is quite impressive. It’s also often potentially unstable – I think most people still remember Apple’s rocky path. I used to think that Apple would go bankrupt not *that* long ago, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. And it can be hard to maintain in the long run, which is probably why most other companies don’t act that way – the companies who consistently try to revolutionize the world also consistently eventually fail.

So that kind of focus takes guts. I’m not an apple fan, because I think they’ve done some really bad things too, but I have to give them credit for not just having good designers, but the guts to go with it. Jobs clearly had a lot to do with that.

Anyway, I don’t think it’s worth worrying too much about laptops. The thing is, the Macbook Air was (and still to some degree is) ahead of its time. But I actually think that hardware is catching up to the point where doing good laptops really isn’t going to be rocket science any more. Rotational media really is going away, and with it goes one of the last formfactor issues: people really do not need (or want) that big spindle for a harddisk, or the silly spindle for an optical drive.

Sure, optical drives will remain in some form factors for a while, and others formfactors will remain bigger just because the manufacturer will want to continue to offer the capability of a rotational disk too – they’re still cheaper and have bigger capacities. But at the same time, *small* flash-based storage is really getting quite good, and while you still pay more for them, it’s not revolutionary any more. The mSATA/miniPCIe form factor is making it more and more realistic standard form-factor.

Together with CPU’s often being “fast enough” I would expect that the macbook air kind of formfactor becomes way more of a norm than it used to be. Apple was ahead of the curve, and I absolutely have higher expectations of the hardware I use than the average user probably does, but at the same time I’m convinced that the notebook market will finally get where I think it should be. Sure, some people will still want to use the big clunkers, but making a good thin-and-light machine is simply not going to be the technical expensive challenge it used to be.

In other words, we’ll take the whole Macbook Air formfactor for granted in a few years. It’s been done, it used to be pretty revolutionary, it’s going to be pretty standard.

It *did* take a lot longer than I thought it would take, admittedly. I’ve loved the thin-and-lights for much longer than the Macbook Air has existed. It’s not like Apple made up the concept – they just executed well on it.

What I in many ways think is more interesting are people who do new things. I love the whole Raspberry PI concept, for example. That’s revolutionary in a whole different direction – maybe not the prettiest form-factor, but taking advantage of how technology gets cheaper to really push the price down to the point where it’s really cheap. Sure, it’s a bit limited, but it’s pretty incredible what you can do for $35. Think about that with a few more years under its belt.

The reason I think that is interesting is because I think we’re getting to the point where it is *so* cheap to put a traditional computer together, that you can really start using that as a platform for doing whole new things. Sure, it’s good for teaching people, but the *real* magic is if one of those people who get one of those things comes up with something really new and fun to do with it.

Fairly cheap home computing was what changed my life. I wouldn’t worry about how to incrementally improve laptop design: I think it’s interesting to see what might *totally* change when you have dirt cheap almost throw-away computing that you can use to put a real computer inside some random toy or embedded device. What does that do to the embedded development world when things like that are really widely available?

SM: You don’t pull any punches when communicating with kernel developers and patch submitters. Has this tactic helped or hindered your success as a father?

LT: I really don’t know. I think the kids have grown up really well, and I don’t think it hurt them that we had rules in the family that were fairly strictly enforced (usually with a five-minute timeout in the bathroom). We had a very strict “no whining” rule, for example, and I’ve seen kids that should definitely have been brought up with a couple of rules like that.

That said, maybe they’re just naturally good kids. I don’t remember the last time I sent them to the bathroom (but it’s still a joke in our family: “If you don’t behave, you’ll spend the rest of the day in the bathroom”)

And while I do work from home, I am *not* a “father” when I work. The kids always knew that if they came in and disturbed me while I was at the computer, they’d get shouted at. I know some people who say that they could never work from home because they’d be constantly distracted by their kids – that is just not the case in our family. So despite me working from home, we’re a very “traditional” family – Tove stayed at home and was really the homemaker and took care of the kids.

And don’t get me wrong: when I interact with kernel developers, there can be a lot of swearing involved. And while that may *occasionally* happen with the kids too, the kids get hugs and good-night kisses too. Kernel developers? Not so much.

Would some kernel people prefer getting tucked in at night instead of being cursed at? I’m sure that would be appreciated. I don’t think I have it in me, though.

SM: How does your family feel about what you do for a living? What questions did/do they ask?

LT: They’ve never seen anything else, so I doubt they even think about it. It’s just what dad does. None of my three daughters have so far shown any actual interest in computers (outside of being pure users – they game, they chat, they do the facebook thing), and while they end up using Linux for all of that they don’t seem to think it’s all that strange.

SM: Do you try to get involved with technology problem solving in your every day life, for example at your kids’ school? If so, how has that been received?

LT: Oh, the absolute *last* thing I want to do is be seen as a support person. No way.

Sure, I do maintain the computers in the house, and it obviously means that the kids laptops (that they use in school too) run Linux, but it turns out that the local school district has had some Linux use in their computer labs anyway, so that never even made them look all that different.

But I’m simply not really organized enough to be a good MIS person. And frankly, I lack the interest. I find the low-level details of how computers work really interesting, but if I had to care about user problems and people forgetting their passwords or messing up their backups, I don’t know what I’d do. I’d probably turn to drugs and alcohol to dull the pain.

Even in the kernel project, I’m really happy that I’m not a traditional manager. I don’t have to manage logistics and people, I can worry purely about the technical side. So while I don’t do all that much programming any more (I spend most of my day merging code others wrote), I also don’t think of myself as a “manager”, I tend to call myself a “technical lead person” instead.

SM: What do you want to tell people that no one has ever bothered to ask you?

LT: The thing is, I don’t have a “message” to people. I never really did. I did (and do) Linux because it’s fun and interesting, and I really also enjoy the social aspect of developing things in the open, but I really don’t have anything I want to tell people.

SM: I apologize for not making this question more clear. I’m not asking if you have a message or anthem or anything like that. As a celebrity, you’ve conducted lots of interviews. Many of them have been formulaic, and there’s only so many times you can receive the same questions before rolling your eyes in exasperation.

Is there any question you wish you’d've been asked in an interview? Whether it’s because you’ve got the perfect / clever / whatever answer prepared, or just because you’d welcome the novelty of it? If so, what would have been your answer?

LT: Hmm. Some of the interviews I’ve enjoyed the most have been from somewhat antagonistic people who came from a non-computer background. I remember this russian journalist (back when I lived in Helsinki), who was writing a piece for some russian financial newspaper. He really was pretty aggressive, and being Russian from after the fall of the soviet union he had an almost unhealthy admiration for Microsoft and making lots of money, and capitalism. I’m sure it was heightened by the whole admiration for wall street etc that must run in the blood of most financial journalists to begin with.

That made for an interesting interview – because I like arguing. Explaining to a person like that why open source works, and in fact works better than the model he so clearly idolized was interesting. I don’t think I necessarily convinced him, but it still made for a memorable interview.

But any particular question? No. That’s not what I tend to find interesting – I enjoy the process, and the argument, and the flow of ideas of an interview, I don’t think there’s a “perfect question”, much less a “perfect answer that I wish somebody had asked me the question for”. So you’re not asking for something that I think I have.

But to expand on that, and to perhaps give you something of an answer anyway: this is very much true for me in software development too. I like the *process*. I like writing software. I like trying to make things work better. In many ways, the end result is unimportant – it’s really just the excuse for the whole experience. It’s why I started Linux to begin with – sure, I kind of needed an OS, but I needed a *project* to work on more than I needed the OS.

In fact, to get a bit “meta” on this issue, what’s even more interesting than improving a piece of software, is to improve the *way* we write and improve software. Changing the process of making software has sometimes been some of the most painful parts of software development (because we so easily get used to certain models), but that has also often been the most rewarding parts. It is, after all, why “git” came to be, for example. And I think open source in general is obviously just another “process model” change that I think is very successful.

So my model is kind of a reverse “end result justifies the means”. Hell no, that’s the stupidest saying in the history of man, and I’m not even saying that because it has been used to make excuses for bad behavior. No, it’s the worst possible kind of saying because it totally misses the point of everything.

It’s simply not the end that matters at all. It’s the means – the journey. The end result is almost meaningless. If you do things the right way, the end result *will* be fine too, but the real enjoyment is in the doing, not in the result.

And I’m still really happy to be “doing” 20 years later, with not an end in sight.

SM: Looking back over the history of Linux, do you have any “Oh man, I can’t believe I did/said that” reactions? (Note: this is not in respect to code strictly, but engineering or policy decisions)

LT: Engineering decisions usually aren’t a problem. Sure, I’ve made the wrong decision many times, but usually there was some good reason for it at the time – and the important part about engineering decisions is that you can fix them later when you realize they were wrong. So the “oh, that was spectacularly wrong” happens all the time, but the more spectacular it is, the quicker we notice, and that means that we fix it quickly too.

The one really memorable “Oh sh*t” moment was literally very early on in Linux development, when I realized that I had auto-dialed my main harddisk when I *meant* to auto-dial the university dial-in lines over the modem. And in the process wiped out my then Minix setup by writing AT-commands to the disk that understandably didn’t respond the way the autodialling script expected (“AT commands” is just the traditional Hayes modem control instruction set).

That’s the point where I ended up switching over to Linux entirely, so it was actually a big deal for Linux development. But that was back in 1991.

SM: If you could give an award to someone, who would be the recipient, and for what accomplishment?

LT: Hey, while I am a computer guy, my heroes are still “real scientists”. So if I can pick anybody, I think I’d pick Richard Dawkins for just being such an outspoken critic of muddled thinking and anti-scientific thought.

SM: The Millennium Technology Prize ceremony is on June 13, which happens to be my birthday. Any chance I can be your +1 to the party?

LT: Scott, I never knew you felt that way. I think my wife would not approve.

SM: Nor would mine, but you miss all the shots you don’t take!

SM: What are the major Linux distributions doing right, in general, and where are they falling short? Your recent Google+ rant about OpenSUSE’s security stance sheds some light on this, but I’d like to know more. Are formalized distributions a necessary evil? How much (if any) influence do you have with the distributions?

LT: So I absolutely *love* the distributions, because they are doing all the things that I’m not interested in, and even very early on they started being a big support for the kernel, and driving all the things that most technical people (including very much me) didn’t tend to be interested in: ease of use, internationalization, nice packaging, just making things a good “experience”.

So I think distributions have been very instrumental in making Linux successful, and that whole thing started happening very early on (some of the first distributions started happening early 92 – on floppy disks).

So they aren’t even a “necessary evil” – they are a “necessary good”. They’ve been very instrumental in making Linux be what it is, both on a technical side, but *especially* on a ease of use and approachability side.

That said, exactly because they are so important, it does frustrate me when I hit things that I perceive to be steps backwards. The SuSE rant was about asking a non-technical user about a password that the non-technical user had absolutely no reason to even know, in a situation where it made no sense. That kind of senseless user hostility is something that we’ve generally come away from (and some kernel people tend to dismiss Ubuntu, but I really think that Ubuntu has generally had the right approach, and been very user-centric).

The same thing is what frustrated me about many of the changes in Gnome 3. The whole “let’s make it clutter-free” was taken to the point where it was actually hard to get things done, and it wasn’t even obvious *how* to do things when you could do them. That kind of minimalist approach is not forward progress, it’s just UI people telling people “we know better”, even if it makes things harder to do. That kind of “things that used to be easy are suddenly hard or impossible” just drives me up the wall, and frustrates me.

As to my own influence: it really goes the other way. The distributions have huge influences on the kernel, and not only in the form of employing a lot of the engineers. I actively look to the distributions to see which parts of the kernel get used, and often when people suggest new features, one of the things that really clinches it for me is if a manager for some distribution speaks up and says “we’re already using that, because we needed it for xyz”.

Sure, I end up influencing them through what I merge, and how it’s done, but at the same time I really do see the distributions as one of the first users of the kernel, and the whole way we do releases (based on time, not features) is partly because that way distributions can plan ahead sanely. They know the release schedule to within a week or two, and we try very hard to be reliable and not do crazy things.

We have a very strict “no regressions” rule, for example, and a large part of that rule is so that people – very much including the people involved in distributions – don’t need to fear upgrades. If it used to work a certain way, we try very hard to make sure it continues to work that way. Sure, bugs happen, and some change may not be noticed in time, but on the whole I think a big part of kernel development is to try to make it as painless as possible for people to upgrade smoothly.

Because if you make upgrades painful, it just means that people will stay back.

SM: You’ve been doing this for 20 years. What do you think of the newest crop of kernel contributors? Do you see any rising stars? Do you see any positive or worrisome trends with respect to the kind and caliber of contribution from younger developers?

LT: I’m very happy that we still have a very wide developer base, and we continue to see more than a thousand different people for each release (which is roughly every three months or so). A lot of those contributions come from people who make just tiny one-liner changes, and some of them are never heard from again once they got their one small fix done, but on the other hand, the small one-liner changes is how many others gets started.

That said, one of the things that *has* changed a lot in the 20 years is that we certainly have a lot more “process” in place. Most of those one-liners didn’t get to me directly – many of them came through multiple layers of submaintainers etc. By the time I see most “rising stars” they’ve already been doing smaller changes for a long time.

The one worrisome trend is pretty much inevitable: the kernel *is* getting big, and a lot of the core code is quite complex and sometimes hard to really wrap your head around. Core areas like the VM subsystem or the core VFS layer simply are not easy to get into for a new developer. That makes it a bit harder to get started if that’s what you are interested in – the bar has simply been raised from where it was ten or fifteen years ago.

At the same time, I do think it’s still fairly easy to get involved, you may just have to start in a less central place. Most kernel people start off worrying about one particular driver or platform, and “grow” from there. We do seem to have quite a lot of developers, and I’ve talked to open source project maintainers that are very envious of just how many people we have involved in the kernel.

SM: You’ve said that it’s the technical challenge that keeps you involved and motivated. Surely there are plenty of technical challenges in the world. Why stick with the kernel?

LT: I think it’s partly because I’m the kind of person who doesn’t flit from one project to another. I keep on doing Linux, because once I get started, I’m kind of obstinate that way.

But part of it is simply the reason I started doing a kernel in the first place – if what you are interested in is low-level interactions with hardware, a kernel is where it is all at. Sure, there are tons of technical challenges out there, but very few of them are as interesting as an operating system kernel if you are into that kind of low-level interaction between software and hardware.

SM: As the number of systems and architectures supported by the Linux kernel continues to grow, you can’t possibly have development hardware for each of them. How do you verify the quality and functionality of all the change requests you get?

LT: Oh, that’s easy: I don’t.

The whole model is built on a network of trust among developers that have come to know each other over the years. There’s no way I can test all the platforms we support – the same way there is no way I can check every single commit that gets merged through me. And I wouldn’t even really even *want* to check each hardware or each change – the point of open source and distributed development is that you do things together. We have a few tens of “highlevel” maintainers for various subsystems (eg networking, USB drivers, graphics, particular hardware architectures etc etc), and even those maintainers can’t test everything in their area, because they won’t have that particular hardware etc. I trust them, and they in turn trust the people they work with.

I think any big project is about finding people you can trust, and really then depending on that trust. I don’t *want* to micro-manage people, and I couldn’t afford to even if I did want to.

And the thing is, smart people (and people who have what I call “good taste”, which is often even more important) may be rare, but you do recognize them. I think one of my biggest successes is actually outside Linux: recognizing how good a developer Junio Hamano was on git, and trusting him enough to just ask if he would be willing to maintain the project. Being able to let go and trusting somebody else is *important*, because without that kind of trust you can’t get big projects done.

What will Linus do with the prize money, if he wins? “I guess I won’t have to worry about the kids education any more,” he says.

Thanks, Linus, for taking the time to chat with me. And good luck! We hope you win the Millenium Technology Prize!

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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Europe has been battling a deep freeze that started in late January and has killed hundreds, snow that has trapped thousands in Balkan mountain villages and prompted worries of flooding as heavy snow melts. In Greece and Bulgaria, flooding on Monday and Tuesday left dozens of homes under water and at least eight dead. Serbian [...]

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Frigid temperatures have gripped Europe in the last week, with the mercury reaching as low as 35 degrees Celsius below zero. After what had been a relatively mild winter, the sudden cold caught many unprepared. Eastern Europe is hardest hit, with over 100 deaths in Ukraine, and with over 11,000 people in remote villages cut off by snow in Serbia. Most of the fatalities recorded have been homeless people found frozen to death outside, and emergency tents with hot meals have been set up to help them in several affected countries. Russia and Poland are mobilizing help for the homeless. Travel in Romania has been chaos as a blizzard hampered efforts to clear both rails and roads. Recorded temperatures in Italy were the lowest in 27 years. -- Lane Turner (45 photos total)
A woman looks out a bus in Bucharest on February 2, 2012. (Vadim Ghirda/Associated Press)

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A few weeks ago I wrote about how you can put together a great readme.txt for the WordPress plugin directory. In addition to using a WordPress readme as a tool to help out your users, you can use it to promote your commercial products and services. While commercial theme developers are already promoted on WordPress.org, this promotion isn’t extended to commercial plugin developers. But restrictions often lead to creativity, and developers have had to get a bit creative in figuring out how to monetize the WordPress repository. API keys, complementary plugins and lite version are just a few of the ways that plugin developers are exploiting the WordPress plugin directory for commercial benefit.

WordPress plugins graphic
(Image: Bowe Frankema)

What’s Allowed?

Back in 2009, Mark Jacquith posted this on the WordPress development blog:

Plugins that merely exist as placeholders for a plugin hosted elsewhere (like a “requirements check” plugin) are out, but “lite” versions, etc are in. The goal is to have the directory be free-to-download plugins. A placeholder for a premium plugin is against that spirit.

He goes on to say:

If your plugin is actually a plugin, not just an advertisement or a placeholder for a plugin hosted elsewhere, you’re fine, as far as this rule is concerned.

Related to this, Matt Mullenweg posted on the WordPress.org support forums:

There are plenty of plugins that tie into third-party services, for example Google AdSense, and some of them have no free versions. That’s totally fine as long as the plugin is totally GPL.

I emailed Matt to see if anything has changed since he posted this, and he directed me to WordPress.org’s “Detailed Plugin Guidelines.”

Briefly, if you’re a commercial plugin developer, here’s what you need to keep in mind if you’re planning to use the repository:

  • The plugin must be GPLv2. (Explicitly state this in your license. If you don’t, it will be assumed that your plugin is GPLv2.)
  • Trialware is not allowed.
  • Upselling is allowed (but not by being annoying or disabling features after a time period).
  • Serviceware is allowed, even for paid services (i.e. a plugin that serves to interface with a third-party service). The service must be doing something substantive, not just providing keys or licenses.
  • No phoning home without the user’s consent. This includes:
    • No unauthorized collection of user data;
    • No remote images or scripts (everything must be part of the plugin);
    • Banners and advertising text should not be included in the plugin;
    • Advertising spam is not allowed.
  • No sending executable code via a third-party system (unless of a service-client model).
  • External links may not be included on the user’s public website.
  • No hijacking the admin page.
  • No sponsored links in the readme.
  • WordPress.org reserves the right to edit the guidelines and to arbitrarily disable or remove a plugin for any reason whatsoever.

Adhering to these guidelines is a delicate balance, and not everyone who tries to monetize the repository is successful at it, as the people behind Plugin Sponsors recently found out.

That said, let’s look at some models whereby developers have managed to create synergy between free plugins and paid plugins or services.

The API Key

A car licence plate reading No Spam
No one likes spam. (Image: Thomas Hawk)

Who’s doing it?

If you’ve installed WordPress, then you’ve met Akismet. Akismet is the anti-spam plugin that comes bundled with WordPress. It’s free for non-commercial use, but if you are using it for a commercial website, then you have to pay for it. The whole Akismet issue pops up every so often in the WordPress blogosphere. Many people feel that a commercial plugin shouldn’t be bundled in WordPress, although I don’t plan to get into that debate here.

Whatever you think of it, providing an API key for a service is a viable way to create a WordPress plugin, host it in the WordPress repository, and yet charge for the service that it provides. Another plugin provider that adopts this model is YoLink, a search service that offers advanced search functionality for websites. Personal websites (i.e. without advertising) that have fewer than 5,000 monthly visitors per year can use it for free; after that, the pricing varies.

“We’ve found that once a user has ample time to test-drive the plugin on their site, they come to realize its value and upgrade to a paid subscription,” says Joe Pagliocco of YoLink. “We are seeing this most often with commercial sites looking for additional flexibility and indexed pages.”

However, you don’t even have to offer a free version of your service to get a plugin with an API key into the repository. Scribe, a popular service from Copyblogger, is a plugin that integrates with your WordPress website. In order to use Scribe, you have to sign up for an API key, which is a minimum of $17 per month. While the plugin is GPLv2 and free, the service is not. This approach might make some people hate you, but it is still a viable way to make money from a plugin in the directory.

Pro: You’re able to offer a plugin that provides a service and make money from it.

Con: People might hate you for it.

Upgrades And Support Forum

Jigoshop e-commerce plugin
Jigoshop offers a commercial-level e-commerce plugin — for free!

Who’s doing it?

Jigoshop is a free e-commerce plugin, available in the WordPress repository. It includes everything that you need to run an e-commerce website. If you like the plugin (and many people do), then you can pay for premium upgrades and support. Premium upgrades include MailChimp integration, BuddyPress integration and various advanced payment gateways.

I spoke with Dan Thornton at Jigoshop, and he said that they had considered going down the lite/premium route, but because the free version was embraced so quickly, they didn’t want to duplicate their work. By including all of the standard payment gateways in the free version, they made it possible for a small business to get a store up and running and then invest its money in extending the store’s features and functionality, rather than have to pay for all of the bits and pieces up front.

When Jigoshop launched earlier this year, it got a lot of promotion throughout the WordPress community purely because it is a totally free, fully-functioning e-commerce solution. “If we’d gone for a different business model,” says Dan, “we couldn’t have afforded the marketing and advertising to match the recommendations and promotion that we’re grateful to have had from users, designers and developers.”

Pro: Massive community of developers has gathered around Jigoshop, adding their own expertise to the product.

Con: A fully-functional GPL plugin is open to being forked by bigger players on the scene.

The Lite Plugin

Bottles of Diet Coke
Do you like your plugins with less calories? (Image: Niall Kennedy)

Who’s doing it?

This is probably one of the most common ways to use the repository to up-sell, and it can be a great option for a variety of plugins. Basically, you restrict the features in the free version and offer a paid version for people who want more features. Putting a lite version of a plugin in the repository is fine, provided it is GPL and adheres to the “Detailed Plugin Guidelines.”

WPMU DEV, a shop for WordPress plugins, has a number of lite versions of its commercial plugins in the repository. It offers lite versions of its Google Maps, eCommerce, Chat, Wiki and Membership plugins, among others. In theory, these plugins should be adequate for the average WordPress user who wants the given functionality on their website, while the commercial versions are available for those who need even more functionality.

I asked James Farmer, of WPMU DEV, what he holds back for his members. “We started holding back quite a bit,” he says. “Now we hold back very little. It’s really just the extended stuff and extra support, etc, that premium users get.”

With little functionality being held back for members, I asked James why they bother including free plugins in the repository. “I suppose you could say to ‘give back,’” he says. “But really, it’s just about business: if folks get to try our plugins for free (and the WordPress.org repository is the best place to get them to do that), then a proportion of them will be keen on our full offerings… At least that’s the plan.”

Pro: Give back to the community while maintaining your business model.

Con: Have to split your support base across WordPress.org and your own website.

Complementary Plugins

Rows of shoes
Some things just work better in pairs. (Image: Martin Hartland)

Who’s doing it?

Two new plugins on the WordPress scene are taking a different approach. Developed by OnTheGoSystems (the folks behind the popular WPML), Types is a plugin for creating custom post types, while Views is a plugin for displaying content. Drupal users will recognize similarities between Views and a certain Drupal module.

Types is free and can be found in the WordPress repository. Views, on the other hand, is a commercial plugin available through the developer’s website. Types is a fully-functional plugin, and if all you’re interested in is creating custom post types and taxonomies and custom fields, then you might stop there. But Views is used to display the content in complex ways by querying the WordPress database for you. And, of course, the Types readme.txt tells you all about what you can do with Views, to tempt you into grabbing the complementary commercial plugin.

OnTheGoSystems developed Types and Views hand in hand, and it markets them that way, too. Views needs Types to create content, and Types is made better when Views displays it. A synergy between the two fuels the business model. “Types complements Views,” says Amir Helzer, CEO of OnTheGoSystems, “by making it easy to create and manage custom data. Marketing 101 says that when you want to promote your product, you work to turn its complements into commodities. This is what Types does. It makes creating of custom data into a non-issue, so that people can concentrate on its display (via Views).”

Pro: Exploit a ready-made market for your commercial plugin.

Con: The market might decide that it only wants your free plugin.

Offer Commercial Themes

Shopping cart
There’s big business in WordPress e-commerce. (Image: Thristian)

Who’s doing it?

The plugin directory isn’t being used just by commercial plugin developers. If you run a successful commercial theme shop, then it’s perfectly within your power to give away a functional WordPress plugin for free, dedicate a team of developers to it, and then let the money roll in as people look for commercial themes to power your plugin. That’s what WooThemes has done with WooCommerce.

You can get WooCommerce from the WordPress repository for free; and with more than 30,000 downloads since launch, it’s proving to be a pretty popular e-commerce solution. What it’s really got going for it, though, is the large collection of dedicated e-commerce themes that work with the plugin.

While already successful as a commercial theme shop, WooThemes was keen to test its legs in the freemium waters. E-commerce seems like a perfect fit for it: free core functionality, while charging for design. I asked Adii Pienaar, WooThemes’ founder, what effect WooCommerce has had on its business. He says, “WooCommerce has been quite a diversification for us on two fronts. First, it diversifies our revenue models and allows us to include the freemium model, which means a higher volume of users. Secondly, it has added a whole new class of products to our offering. To that extent, we’ve already seen a bump in our overall revenue, and our WooCommerce-related revenues are already establishing themselves as a firm chunk of that pie.”

To follow this model, Adii suggests that you develop a great core product and then monetize add-ons to that core. Because the core is free, you get high-volume adoption, and you need only monetize a certain percentage of it to be profitable.

Pro: Great way to expand your current market.

Con: Works best if you’re already backed by a strong brand.

Installation And Set-Up Services

A Lego plumber
Everyone needs a bit of help sometimes. (Image: Carol Browne)

Who’s doing it?

s2Member is powerful membership plugin. In fact, it’s so powerful that a dedicated installation service runs alongside it. Simplicity in a plugin is always a bonus, but out of necessity some plugins end up being seriously complex. That isn’t a bad thing, but it can get confusing for less advanced WordPress users. From my own experience, membership plugins can be extensive and pretty difficult for users to set up.

A great way to monetize a plugin like this is to offer an installation service alongside it. To set up s2Member, you can employ s2Installs. This is the team of developers behind s2Members, and they can install and set it up for you, as well as provide custom coding to extend the plugin to fit your needs. What better way to set up and extend a plugin than by employing its own developers to do it?

This is a really good model in which everyone can access the plugin for free, while commercial help is available for people who aren’t able to use the plugin to its full extent.

Pro: You are the best person to provide set-up, installation and customization of your plugin, so capitalize on it!

Con: Only works with big plugins. Might not work so well with your Google +1 button.

Is It Really Worth It?

Now that we’ve looked at some of the models, you might be wondering if this is actually worth it. Many commercial plugin developers, including those of popular plugins such as Gravity Forms, don’t adopt the freemium model and yet are still incredibly successful. In fact, a number of the plugin developers I spoke with said that the amount of traffic they get from the repository is minimal, not to mention other developers who don’t want a whole lot to do with WordPress.org. Some feel that the tightrope that has been set up for commercial plugin developers who want to use the repository is too precarious and not something they want to put effort into. Commercial themes are supported on WordPress.org, but there is nothing similar for plugin developers. Most of the developers I spoke with felt that a commercial plugin page will probably never appear on WordPress.org.

That said, if you are going down the freemium route, then using the WordPress repository is definitely a viable option, provided that you do actually use GPLv2 and provide some kind of useful service. The WordPress plugin directory will always be the best way to get your product into WordPress’ back end.

Like everything, the WordPress plugin directory has its upsides and downsides, and it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. But in addition to directly promoting your product and services, having a plugin in the repository has a load of indirect benefits:

  • Self-promotion and branding
    You might not be making a living off of your plugin, but you will be making a living off of yourself. A great example of this is Yoast, which is available for free in the plugin directory; while its developer doesn’t make any money from it directly, his business is built on his SEO expertise.
  • Networking
    Having a plugin in the directory helps you to connect with other people in the WordPress community. People will be like, “Oh, you’re the guy who made that plugin. I love that!” The more popular your plugin, the more people will be interested in you.
  • Custom work
    Offering a plugin means that someone out there might want your plugin to be customized, and they might be willing to pay for it.
  • Job leads and opportunities
    You never know who is looking in the repository. Some big-wig might love your plugin and could be hiring. You could also use it as part of your CV, letting potential employers check out your code before even getting shortlisted.
  • Kudos
    Everyone loves a plugin developer — and if they don’t, they should!
  • Giving back
    Part of being a member of an open-source community is finding a way to give back. After all, we get the software that we build our livelihoods on for free. A free plugin in the directory is a great way to give back, especially if it’s a good one!

Of course, it’s not all happiness and sparkles. There are some aspects to having a plugin in the repository that put some developers off:

  • Double the support
    If you offer support on your own website, too, then you’ll have to keep on top of two support forums.
  • Unreasonable support expectations
    It’s sad, but some WordPress users feel that developers who give their plugins away for free should be at the beck and call of users. This leads to flaming in forums, hostile emails, angry tweets and the occasional midnight phone call.
  • Keeping up with WordPress
    WordPress has a fast development cycle, with around two to three major releases a year (along with security updates and the like). Maintaining a plugin can become quite a chore, as is apparent from all of the orphaned plugins in the repository.
  • #17 in the “Detailed Plugin Guidelines”
    This states that WordPress.org can revise the guidelines and arbitrarily disable or remove plugins whenever it feels like it. This arbitrariness does put people off.

A Commercial Plugin Shop?

It has long been fabled that Automattic might create some sort of WordPress app store where commercial plugin developers can sell their plugins to users straight from the WordPress dashboard. This will likely remain a fable, with no whisper from Automattic that anything of the sort is planned. Of course, there are places where you can purchase commercial WordPress plugins, such as WPPlugins and Code Canyon, but neither of these has the advantage of delivering plugins directly from the WordPress dashboard.

PlugPress tried a different approach. It created an “app store” plugin that WordPress users could install from the WordPress directory and then use to browse commercial plugins and themes. It uploaded the plugin to the WordPress repository and announced that it was live, and then the plugin was removed.

Although Google indexes PlugPress as being in the WordPress repository, the link is now dead

It’s a pretty clear signal that this type of store plugin won’t be allowed in the WordPress repository.

Amir Helzer (who we met earlier) has another approach. He posted a few months ago on the WPML blog about an alternative repository for commercial plugins and themes. His premise is similar to the approach taken in the Linux world. Every theme and plugin author can become their own repository. So Theme Forest could have a repository, as could Mojo Themes, as could whoever else. A central plugin would enable WordPress users to select commercial sources from which to search for themes or plugins. This would essentially make commercial plugins available in the dashboard and enable people to easily upgrade. It’s a novel idea, but given PlugPress’ swift exit from the repository, you won’t be seeing this in the WordPress directory anytime soon.

Conclusion

I firmly believe that placing restrictions on something spurs greater creativity, and the models above demonstrate how commercial plugin developers are thinking outside the box to use a directory that is essentially for free plugins. If it were simply a matter of a WordPress app store, then all of us would be in danger of buying plugins that aren’t very good (Apple’s App Store, anyone?). Plugin developers think creatively, which can only be a good thing for end users. Astute plugin developers will always find ways to use the WordPress plugin repository to promote their products, and I hope that their plugins are the better for it.

Developers are undoubtedly creating synergy between their commercial products and the repository in other ways. If you know of any, we’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Further Resources

(al)

© Siobhan McKeown for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

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Product pages for e-commerce websites are often rife with ambitions: recreate the brick-and-mortar shopping experience, provide users with every last drop of product information, build a brand persona, establish a seamless check-out process.

As the “strong link in any conversion,” product pages have so much potential. We can create user-centric descriptions and layouts that are downright appropriate in their effectiveness: as Erin Kissane says, “offering [users] precisely what they need, exactly when they need it, and in just the right form.”

Beyond that, a user-centered creation process for product pages can help brand the information as well as reduce the content clutter that so often bogs down retail websites.

User-centric product copy garners positive results because it anticipates the user’s immediate reaction. As Dr. Timo Saari and Dr. Marko Turpeinen, authors of “Towards Psychological Customization of Information for Individuals and Social Groups” suggest, individual differences in processing information implicates dramatic variances in type and/or intensity of psychological effects, such as positive emotion, persuasion, and depth of learning (2).

We can describe products in various ways. Highlighting certain aspects of a product will elicit different reactions from various users. Gearing product descriptions to a particular audience encourages those users to effectively process the information, heightens persuasion, and increases the potential to predict what the users want (but didn’t know they needed). The effort required of user-centric product descriptions demands that we understand how certain descriptors, contexts and inclusions of details affect the target user, and that we then put our discoveries into action.

This article offers a user-centric guide to producing product pages and provides examples of successful e-commerce websites that present user-centric approaches to product page descriptions and layouts.

Get To Know Your User

Approaching product page description and layout from a user-centric perspective demands that we have a rich understanding of the target user. As Saari and Turpeinen suggest, Web customization starts with some type of model, be it individual, group or community. With your user models in place, you can best assess what they need and how to write for them.

In her book Letting Go of the Words, Web usability expert Janice Redish suggests these strategies for getting to know your target user:

  • Scope the email responses that come through the website’s “Contact Us” form and other feedback links. Consider the profiles of the senders. You can discover commonalities in lifestyle, technological capability, education level and communication preference through these channels.
  • Talk to the customer service or marketing employees at your company. Don’t approach them with a broad demand to describe the typical client. Rather, ask questions about their interactions with clients. Who is calling in? Who is stopping by the office? What queries and complaints are common?
  • Offer short questionnaires to visitors to the website. Redish suggests asking people “a few questions about themselves, why they came to the site, and whether they were successful in finding what they came for.”
  • If possible, acquire a sense of the client simply by observing the people who walk through the front doors of the business. This is a great way to pick up on key phrases, jargon, emotional behavior and demographics.

Once you’re able to confidently brainstorm the major characteristics of your target user or group, then developing the models to guide the writing process comes next.

Keep in mind that gathering and compiling this information can take as little or as big an investment of time and money as you (or the client) can afford and still be effective. As Leonard Souza recently noted, even stopping in a nearby coffee shop to engage five to ten people in your target demographic can yield useful insight. With a bit of flexibility, you can find learning opportunities that are convenient and on the cheap.

The models created from your user research can be fashioned into personas, which Souza describes as “tools for creating empathy among everyone in the project.” Use personas to guide user-centric copywriting by establishing very specific user goals and preferences.

A persona is a fictional person amalgamated from the characteristics of your target user. You can get creative here with the persona’s name and image, but not too creative. The persona must be mindfully constructed according to the age, education, family status and other personal details culled from your research.

Now that you have a persona to please as you construct a product description and layout hierarchy, staying user-centric is that much easier. Take a look at the product description from Lululemon, a British Columbia-based yoga-wear retailer:

Product page for lululemon.com
Product description from Shop.lululemon.com

The product description assumes that the reader knows a specific set of jargon: How many non-yoga participants would know what downward-dog means? Or “pipes”, as the “Key Features” section refers to arms? This content drives right to the needs and preferences of a very specific user. She wants warmth (four of the “Key Features” note the thermal quality of the product), convenience (pre-shrunk fabric, easy layering), and motivation for an active lifestyle (she recognizes the yoga jargon and enjoys giving her “pipes some air time”).

A rich understanding of the user has made this product page effective and delightfully specific to both the user and the brand.

Master S.M.A.R.T. Content and Layout

Without specific, measurable, actionable, relevant and trackable user goals driving the copy on the product page, the information will sag. I draw here from Dickson Fong’s enlightening article “The S.M.A.R.T. User Experience Strategy“ to suggest that care should be taken to develop user goals that guide the writing process for product pages.

The S.M.A.R.T. formula will keep you on track as you plot out product details and decide what descriptive angle to use.

Fong provides an excellent user goal for a product page: “I want to learn more about this product’s design, features and specifications to determine whether it fits my budget, needs and preferences.”

This will help you create a checklist when assessing what to present first and what to offer as optional information when structuring the layout of the page (more about that in the “Create Information Hierarchies” section below). It provides direction when you’re writing content and helps you focus on the benefits to the user. And as Darlene Maciuba-Koppel suggests in The Web Writer’s Guide, “In copywriting, your end goal is to sell benefits, not products, in your copy.”

For users, benefits and accomplished goals go hand in hand. A product that doesn’t fit their budget, needs or preferences offers them little benefit. So, in order for S.M.A.R.T. goal-driven product pages to serve user-centric purposes, the text must follow suit. Fong suggests presenting relevant content details that are specific to the consumer of that product type.

Let’s take Fong’s S.M.A.R.T. user goal for product pages and assess the specifications at play on the following two pages from Dell:

Product page for Dell.com
Product page for Alienware on Dell.com

Featured on Alienware, Dell’s computer subsidiary for high-performance gaming, the description for this desktop computer has been tailored to the primary browsing goal of a very specific user. The needs and preferences of the user have already been predicted in the bullet-point outline, highlighting optimum graphics and top-notch liquid-cooling capabilities, thus harmonizing the checklist of features with a checklist of benefits for the user. A number of the product’s features could have been highlighted, but for optimal ease, the specifics most likely to help the user accomplish their goals are featured.

With the next Dell desktop computer, another goal of the target user is covered in the description:

Product page for Dell.com
Product page description for Inspiron 570 on Dell.com

With a noticeable absence of technical details and a heavy emphasis on product personalization, this description plays to a user with very different needs than the Alienware shopper’s. Even the tabs have been re-arranged to best meet the user’s goals. The Inspiron 570 page shows “Customer ratings” as the first tab, while the Alienware page offers “Design” first and then “Tech specs.”

These decisions are all geared to accomplishing very specific user goals: find the required information and assess the benefits.

Use Personal Pronouns

Consider again Dell’s description of its Inspiron 570:

Make It Yours

The Inspiron 570 desktop is everything you want and nothing you don’t. Available in vibrant colors, so you can complement your style or stand out from the crowd. Plus, you can build your desktop according to your needs with a choice of multiple AMD processors and NVIDIA ATI graphics cards as well as other customizable features. So whether you are surfing the Web, emailing friends and family, downloading music and photos or blogging about it all, the Inspiron 570 desktop can handle it.

Your wants, your style, your needs, your friends and your Internet past-times. Including the title, eight instances of “you” or “your” turn up in this 86-word segment!

Personal pronouns in product descriptions are perfectly appropriate and quite effective at engaging users, because, as Redish states, “People are much more likely to take in [messages] if you write with ‘you’ because they can see themselves in the text.”

With Dell’s content, the personal pronouns target a specific user (one who is savvy enough to download music and email and who is interested in customization and feeling unique), while also managing a broad gender appeal.

Outdoor equipment retailer REI employs personal pronouns in its online product descriptions, creating dynamic scenarios aimed at a specific user:

Saranac product description
Product description for REI.com

The description asserts that this canoe will help you navigate a waterway that “you’ve recently noticed,” anticipating a specific user reality (or dream).

The product showcase is devoted to the user’s needs and showing how the user will benefit from purchasing the canoe. Using “you” is the clearest and most direct way for this retailer to grab the user’s attention and to convince them, at any time of the year, that this canoe is the right buy.

Angie King backs this up in her article “Personal Pronouns: It’s Okay to Own Your Web Copy.” She suggests that using first- and second-person pronouns helps users connect with the content, and “reflect[s] the way real people write and speak,” fostering an immediate connection.

For a product description to speak directly to a specific user or group, the “you’s” should flow freely.

Use Information Hierarchies

Adopting a user-centric approach to the layout and copy of product pages helps you tackle the challenge articulated by Kean Richmond: “How do you cram so much information into a single Web page?”

In addition to technical specifications, shipping information, item details and preference options (and don’t forget that compelling product description), product pages must also list every describable service that the product performs for its user, including customer benefits (as Darlene Maciuba-Koppel explains, too).

By all means, provide the user with every last detail possible. Answer every conceivable question, or make the answer visible for discovery. Do so with information hierarchies that are based on a rich understanding of targeted users. This will keep each page tidy and drive users to complete your business goals.

In a structure in which, as Kean Richmond states, “all the important information is at the top and [the rest] flows naturally down the page,” details that might not be a top priority for the target user can be tucked into optional tabs or presented at the bottom of the page. The key is to gauge the structure of the page with the sensibilities of the targeted user in mind.

Look At User Context

Here’s where you become a mind-reader of sorts. Erin Kissane points to the approach of content strategist Daniel Eizan in understanding what specific users need to see on the page in order to be drawn into the information. Eizan looks at the user’s context to gauge their Web-browsing behaviors. Eizan asks, What are they doing? How are they feeling? What are they capable of?

Establishing user context aids in planning an information hierarchy, and it is demonstrated by small and large e-retailers. On the big-box side, we have Walmart:

Product page for Walmart.com

By making the price and product name (including the unit number per order) immediately visible, Walmart has anticipated a possible user context. A Walmart visitor searching for granola bars has perhaps purchased the product before. With the unit price made visible, perhaps the anticipated user is judging the product based on whether this box size will suffice.

Details such as “Item description” and “Specifications” are options that are convenient to the user who is making a large order of a familiar product.

The user’s context shapes the hierarchy: the user seeks a quick calculation of units per product versus price. The targeted user does not immediately need an ingredients list, allergy information or a description of the flavor. But if they do, they are available in a neat options-based format.

Walmart has built its reputation on “Everyday low prices,” and the brick-and-mortar philosophy has crossed over to its website. Walmart anticipates users who have some familiarity with its products and who have expectations of certain price points. These factors play into the information hierarchy across the website.

Now look at the product page of a different kind of retailer, nutrition bar manufacturer Larabar:

Product page for Larabar.com
Cashew Cookie product page from Larabar.com

Here is an online presentation of a retail product that is similar to Walmart’s Nature Valley granola bar (though some might argue otherwise).¬†However, the information hierarchy clearly speaks to a different user — a specific user, one who might be looking for gluten-free snack foods or a vegan protein solution. The Larabar user’s context is much less urgent than the Walmart user’s. The product page does not reveal pricing or unit number. Ingredients are visible here, with simple images that (when scrolled over) provide additional nutritional information.

The anticipated user has more time to peruse, to browse several varieties of product, and to read the delightful descriptions that help them imagine the tastes and textures of the bars.

This user might be very much like the targeted Walmart user but is likely visiting the Larabar website in a different context. This product page offers more immediate information on nutrition and taste, selling to a user who is perhaps hunting for a solution to a dietary restriction or for a healthy snack alternative.

However, the red-boxed “Buy Now” is positioned in a memorable, convenient spot on the page, leaving no guessing for the user, who, after reading a description of this healthy bar full of “rich and creamy flavor,” will likely click it to find out the purchasing options.

With these two pages for (arguably) similar products, we see two completely different ways to structure product details.

Both are effective — for their targeted users. A person seeking gluten-free snacks for a camping trip might be frustrated having to search through the hundreds of granola bar options on Walmart’s website. But they wouldn’t be going there in the first place; they would use a search engine and would find Larabar.

Information hierarchy solves the content-overload challenge that can overshadow the process of constructing a product page, and it is an opportunity to bolster user-centric copy and layout. As mentioned, the key is to gauge the user’s context.

Conclusion

While a user-centric consideration of product pages is not the only way to go, it does provide a focused approach that has appeared to be effective for some pretty successful e-commerce players. Consistency in product pages is key, especially when building a brand’s presence; a reliable guide can ease the writing process. The user-centric method does require some primary research, but this lays a sturdy foundation by which to gauge every bit of content on the page according to how it benefits the user.

As Maciuba-Koppel says, as a content writer or designer, your goal should not be to sell products, but to sell benefits.

Now watch the conversions multiply.

(al) (fi)

References

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