Thursday, December 10, 2009

Don't make V1 TOO Crappy

Avery is a company that provides some... paper needs. I don't know all of what they provide, but I know they provide labels. I know this because my fiancée and I were printing out labels for our upcoming wedding. They provide an online tool that could be... very good. Instead, it is... so so.

They provide web tools to construct a PDF which can be printed on to your labels. This is an awesome idea because it is a very portable way to print to their paper products, and could provide highly customized behavior geared towards the type of paper you are printing to. Labels, in our case, could have some really cool software designed specifically around producing the exact labels you want on the specific Avery label product you purchased. If Avery wanted to be a leader, they could even support their leading competitor's products, so when you think of a good experience for your printing needs, you think Avery. This means you might be more likely go for the Avery products the next time you wanted to buy some labels, if they can leave that good of an impression on you. Nevermind the ad revenue they could rake in on top of that.

There is no reason this can't work on any browser with any operating system, right? Well, that is their first failure. The tool (which seemed to be primarily built with flash) wouldn't work on Chrome or Firefox in Ubuntu. I see no compelling reason why it had to be built with Flash, except that it probably was easier to develop their customized UI. Well, I don't believe Flash really gains you much there, but I can understand the thinking that it does. Regardless, some of the controls just failed to respond in my browsers. Namely, a checkbox to toggle the first row in a mail merge as header names vs a separate data row wouldn't respond. Also, the button to add a new span of text on the label didn't respond. Ultimately, I was forced to use IE within my Windows VM, as disgusting as that was. Firefox might have worked on Windows (and maybe even Chrome), but after 2 failed browser attempts, I wanted to go to the crappiest browser that too many unskilled developers still seem to target exclusively.

Ok, force me to use a shitty browser to get my work done... that's a huge mark against you, but if the rest of the user experience is just mind blowingly awesome, I can forgive you. But seriously... I have to have a blown mind by the time I'm done for me to forgive you. It's just too easy these days to write cross browser HTML and JavaScript to excuse the lack of portability. This is not an application that screams the need for Flash, so I think it's an indication of a lack of talent and creativity that they resorted to Flash.

Moving on, I ran across another bug that showed the lack of polish they put into this product. They have a nice mail merge feature that allowed me to upload an Excel spreadsheet and use the rows as addresses. This is a must have for printing labels, but also one of those features that makes you happy to be using a computer instead of doing this stuff before our digital age, like attempting homebrew calligraphy with a ballpoint pen. So, they had a nice feature that I already mentioned. You could mark the first row as the row specifying your field names, effectively starting your data on the second row. Neat! It even worked! Except... for our recent batch of labels, when selecting fields to place in the label, only the first field was showing, and truncated as "Mr." That's odd. We tried dropping the header row, and the problem still showed up. I guess I should add that the first column value of the first row was something like "Mr. & Mrs. John Doe." It dawned on me that maybe these mindless developers were so bad that a simple & character could screw up the mail merge. I moved the row down and put in a more innocuous row at the top. Sure enough, it worked smoothly! So, let me get this straight... a mail merge that could have completely arbitrary data in it breaks down because of a simple & character???!?!? I shudder at the thought of what security holes might be present in this application.

Ok, I have saved by far the most egregious issue I have with their application for last. Their login process. Now, I can't for the life of me understand why they need any of my information to let me generate a PDF. However, they had multiple required fields, including my name and email. Why do you, Avery, need this information to construct a PDF to help me utilize your real product? It baffles me. Well, I gave the information, and then had to go back and start again due to some of the issues above. I figured this process had implicitly registered me, since the form had looked like a registration form. When I went back and attempted to log in, I discovered that this was not the case at all. That irked me, so I decided to register. And, FYI, the registration form looked exactly like the form to just use their web tools directly... just with an added password field. I registered and then clicked the link to get back to printing labels, and guess what? I got the form again to get my name and email to start the label making process again! Are you KIDDING ME?!?!?!?!!!!!

In what could have been an amazing experience, Avery thoroughly dashed my hopes that more companies are starting to understand that cross platform web tools are the future. Instead of being a leader in the specialized paper printing business, they have made me shudder at the incompetent developers that they likely hired to do this job. There were nuggets of a really cool product, so there must be some smart people there... but they are likely drowning from a few really bad apples.

I think this kind of disproves Jeff Atwood's recent post that you should release a crappy version 1 and iterate. Or at least, it reinforces the thought that he included that you shouldn't release total crap for version 1. I guess Avery could redeem themselves in my view if they are iterating and actually listening to good feedback. If I come back in a couple months, and all of these issues are somehow tackled... I could forgive these transgressions. I seriously doubt it will be the case though.

I think Avery is stepping in the right direction with their online tools. They have a lot of potential there. Unfortunately, their execution makes me embarrassed as a fellow web developer.

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