November 17, 2018

Why redesign a Website that works perfectly?

‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ goes a famous saying. When I was chatting with someone in office a few days back, we had a conversation around the changing User Interfaces and User Experiences in the modern applications (commonly called as the UI/UX in Tech lingo). The conversation was more focused on why customers resist change and are comfortable with the older UI however crappy it might be. A small conversation it was, but triggered thoughts in me as I had been pondering around this point in the recent past.

If you are in India, there is a good probability that you would have used IRCTC website at least once in the recent past to book train tickets. CRIS (Centre for Railway Information Systems) took a major initiative to revamp the IRCTC booking website and make the website feature rich and improve the User Experience. It was well known that older website was not so great, but it got the job done and people got used to it. The newer website took some time to get used to and more importantly there was only one key question around, ‘Where do I Login?’ For some reason, IRCTC decided to focus on new bookings and threw up the journey details right at the centre of the page and Login went somewhere into some menu. For a lot of people who just wanted to cancel the tickets, they were not able to find the Login and had a horrid time. The earlier website started with a Login.  It might have been heavily inspired by the Redbus/Makemytrip websites, but the purpose is not the same. Today they have kept a red coloured Login button right at the top. But why change something that was working perfect?

When you design a new webpage or website, UI/UX takes the precedence. The impression you create, the placement of information and buttons, the fluidity and the navigation matters. But when you already have a solid user base who is comfortable with the interface, it is necessary to think much before changing the way things work.

Cricinfo has been another example in the recent past. Cricinfo has been a goto website for any cricket lover for a long time since we started tracking matches on the web. Famously their servers crashed the day Sachin scored the first double century in ODI. That’s the traffic they had. Ever since, CricBuzz came into picture with increased focus on Mobile App, a lot of users went switching over. Cricinfo decided it was time to revamp the website to fit into any gadget and became increasingly cluttered. It took more time to open the website, the commentary often doesn’t loads properly. Comments in the articles were one of my favourite features. There were only a handful of readers, but you knew most of them and looked forward to reading their perspective. Cricinfo decides that the volumes are not enough. When I tried to reach out, I get a reply that I can still comment on Facebook. Why move from a smaller intelligent sect to a larger garbage sect? There goes the user experience! The only good thing with Cricinfo now is that they still have quality reports from Sidharth Monga, Andrew Miller, Daniel Bretig, George Dobell and the likes.

More often than not, companies design new websites and believe that the features are intuitive enough for the user to figure out on their own. Around 2 years back, Airtel revamped their website with a lot of focus on material design and fresh icons. Earlier, there was a clear ‘Login’ button available and I was lost for a few weeks as to where it has gone. Only when someone randomly told me that they have replaced the wording to a person Icon, I realized that it is still in the same old place.

Quora is another example of consistently changing UI. The prime components of Quora is quite simple – Questions, Answers, Topics, Upvote, Downvote, Share, Search. The UI team are an enthusiastic bunch who cannot retain the design for a few months together. They move buttons from one place to another, replace words with icons, bring new icons and get back to word. Interestingly there a few questions in Quora itself as to why the platform has got such inconsistent UI.

Gmail has a good example of how to alter the User Interface without affecting the User Experience. They provide a guided tour when they get into a new interface. They still enable you to retain the older version for sometime before it is scrapped. And the core of the design remains the same. The wordings still remain the same and most of the times are the same place. You don’t suddenly start searching for old features.

Quite often, the software providers allow you to use the older version for a longer timeframe even after launching a new interface. The issue is that they donot let you flow smoothly from the older interface to the newer one. They don’t provide you with guided tours or guided trainings. And in most cases, the revamp is hard to adapt too.

While the purpose of revamping the UI will be to increase adoption and satisfy the user community, more often than not, it leads to the opposite.

Happy Reading!

August 15, 2018

Tales of Old and New Madras - S. Muthiah - Book Review

Tales of Old and New Madras

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Landing upon this book was a pure chance. I was randomly browsing through the Amazon's monthly kindle deals and ended up purchasing this gem for a cheap price. The book is authored by S. Muthiah the famous Madras writer and the man behind the organization of Madras Day celebrations in the recent years. This is not a book written in a single flow, but is a collection of 38 articles written by the author in various instance at various lengths. Strewn together, the book brings the stories of Madras from its founding days to the recent fiasco of the new Assembly building.

The first chapter starts with how Francis day got the land for Fort St. George by combining two villages back in 1639. To placate the Village headman Madarasen and the ruler Chennapa Nayak, he decided to name the fort as Madarasapatnam and the surrounding colony as Chennapatnam - the names of which has created controversies in the later years. After this interesting chapter, the book enters into a few articles on how rules were established in the settlement based on first reported Murder, a Rape Accusation and how Sheriffs were setup in the settlement. These chapters appear extended and creates a lull in the book, given the disconnect with the modern day.

After this comes the articles of late 18th and early 19th centuries, which are interesting. They cover pieces of famine relief (Cyclical rains seems to have been a eternal worry for the state), a few historical buildings, the Club House and the beginning of Engineering institute in the city. The author seems to have a critical remark of how the College of Engineering, Guindy has been let down off late, given how great it was an institute in the early days.

Then comes the tales of late 19th century which is the most interesting part of the book given that the city has attained a remarkable shape in this part and most of them remain intact today. These parts covers the tales of the Indo Sarcenic architecture of the old buildings, the formation of the Marina Promenade, construction of the Madras Harbor, the formation of Theosophical society and my most favorite part of the book - the Chepauk Cricket Stadium. It is indeed sad that the local cricket administrators have ignored the history of the ground completely in the name of modernization. How great it would have been to have an antique cricket museum or hall in the ground reflecting the long tenure of cricket here.

The book deals with various firsts in the city - Telephone Exchange, Bank, Movie Theaters, Studios, Newspaper, Magazine and looks into the history of how a few failed, while a few went on to become household names like Ananda Vikatan or The Hindu. The book then looks into the life of few famous personalities to have come from the city - the math genius Ramanujam and how prodiogious and unfortunate he was (he died when he was just 33), Kalakshethra founder Rukmani and how she found discovered and made Bharata Natyam popular, the Woodlands hotel founder K. Krishna Rao and how he setup the entire business, Thiru. Vi. Kalyanasundaram and his tryst with Labour Unions.

In the final part, the author briefly touches upon the major political events of the recent times - the death of CM Annadurai and MGR - their rise to power and in the process he covers the history of Justice Party, Dravida Kazhagam, DMK and ADMK. It is certainly indulging to read about the party in 1940s and 1950s and how they came to the current state.

The flipside of the book is that the author has just compiled the articles he has written at various points of time. This drives the lack of continuation at certain points of time and also lack of depth in some articles. The other effect is that certain portions keep getting repeated like there are lot of instances where the establishment of Justice party is meted out.

The book gives lots of interesting anecdotes all along. An entire chapter is dedicated to the rise of Indian English and how even the the Britishers had established a dictionary for that. The author keeps lamenting the fact that we have forgotten the Englishmen who established various institutions and facilities in the city. He is also critical of the modern day governments for not preserving the history. The author also brings the fact a lot of rules that forms the core of our country were actually established in this city in the founding days.

There is so much of history in Chennai, but so little a current generation Chennaite would know. This is a must read book for any History buff from this part of the country.

June 8, 2018

A trip to Jogja - Part 2: Spectacular Borobudur!

Hi Guys,

To read A trip to Jojga - Part 1: The 9th Century Prambanan Templeclick here.

Borobudur has a famous Sunrise tour which is supposed to give a spectacular view of the sunrise amidst the mountains, but with the rains I decided it was not worth making it. After waking up at 6 am, the walk to the temple was took 10 minutes. A group of foreigners were coming back down the temple stairs after completing the Sunrise tour. A large chunk of school kids had come in for touring the temple.

The famous Buddha statue amidst stupas and the picturesque mountain behind!

A view from the top of the temple
A view from the side of the temple
While Prambanan temple is largely a Hindu architecture, the Borobudur temple is slightly different. The temple’s structures is more like a large cube with layers of squares inside. Constructed in 9 layers with 118 meters width a 35 meters height, the outer six are squares and inner three are circular with bell shaped stupas around. There are 72 small stupas and one giant central piece. Apparently, this temple was also built in 9th century, probably before the Prambanan temple by the rival Sailendra Dynasty. And the temple was abandoned and rediscovered in the recent centuries. Indonesian Government has taken special interest in restoring the temple to show the world that they value their culture and are secular in nature.
The Rain Starts and the Umbrellas are out on rent!

One of the many Buddha Statues
As I reached the top of the temple and was having a look at the surrounding mountains and fields, the sky opened up and it started raining. And I having forgotten by Umbrella at the room had no choice but to take shelter at one of the pillars. And some Bollywood fanatic locals came up to take a picture – there a quite a few words that you will keep hearing across in Indonesia – it includes Shah Rukh Khan, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Ahchaa, Nahi… And as rain was not relenting, I took an Umbrella on rent (interesting business) for IDR 10,000 from the base. And then I began my walk up again to the top. After spending some time seeing the numerous Buddha statues around and taking a stroll through each of the layers which contains relics from the life of Gautama Buddha, I walked down. On the best of days with no rain, I believe one can sit in the top and enjoy the mesmerizing views around.

One of the many relics in the nine layers depicting the life of Gautama Buddha!
And one Selfie with the stupas amidst the rain!
Similar to the Prambanan temple, the complex is huge and there a lot of activities to do. Early in the morning, most of the souvenir shops were just being opened. And a chunk of tourists had started pouring in. Coming back to the guest house and munching on the no meat Nasi Goreng and feeding fishes in the paddy fields, it was time to head back to Jogja. This time, decided to take the local bus from Borobudur to Jogja. It costed IDR 25,000 a fraction of the Grab trip. The bus was as good as a rural Indian bus and the driver took his own sweet time to drive. Driving through some small towns and across rivers, we reached Jogja a little later than 1 pm.

The paddy fields behind the guest house. How peaceful life is here!
After having completed the main objective of the tour, it was time to have a look at the Jogja’s Royal Place called Keraton and a dutch time swimming pool in Taman Sari. And then I hit the traditional and classic shopping street of Jogja – Jalan Malioboro. After a stroll across, spent some time in souvenir purchase in the shop of Hamza Batik. After watching the local street vendors cook and the vintage street architecture, it was time to leave the lovely city.

One of the pools in the colorful Taman Sari - a swimming pool from the earlier centuries
The traditional Malioboro Street with a lot to shop!
The Batik drawing technique demonstrated live in Hamzah Batik store
And some Satays being prepared on the fly
As night falls, it is time to leave the wonderful city!
There is a lot more in Jogja than just the temples. There are few spectacular beaches to the west of the city, a few volcano treks around, an amazing cave visit is also there. All in all, to cover and enjoy Jogja in detail, you will need atleast 4-5 days with you which is a luxury.

Happy Reading!!!