@madpilot makes

Browser version switching – quick fix?

I have just finished reading the two A List Apart articles (by Aaron Gustafsen and Eric Meyer) on the concept of using browser meta tags to specifically target browsers. Go and read the articles to get the full story, but the basic premise it to devise a meta tag that stipulates which browser version the site is targeted at, eg:

<meta http-equiv="X-UA-Compatible" content="IE=8" />

It’s an interesting concept to say the least, and I’m quite torn – the standards-nazi in me wants to yell from the roof tops how stupid an idea it is. The time-poor developer in me is jumping for joy, because I could target a specific set of browsers and KNOW that is would forever more work in said browsers.

The biggest problem I see is that browser vendors will need to ship multiple layout engines with each release – the number of which grows at a rate of n. So after a couple of releases, imagine how big the binary installs (and source code) would be? Just as an example, Firefox 2.0.x is currently up to point release 12 – that is 12 difference rendering engines since mid-last year.

Couldn’t the browser developers use a decision tree approach to minimise the codebase? No, not really, as this would potentially add bugs into previous versions – that is programming 101. This would break the previous renderer, defeating the purpose of this idea.

I really see this as THE show stopper. Why are the browser makers going to add to their work load? They are stuggling to build to the standards specification as it is. Programming is hard, this just makes it harder.

Having said that, if the browser makes can work a way around this issue, it does fix the problem, which is one that I’ve been piping up about for ages (I thought I’d written a blog post about it, but apparently not). When IE 7 came out, the goal posts moved – sure IE 6 was broken, but at least we had had 5 years of understanding HOW it was broken. Now all of a sudden, this new browser comes out and things change (exactly the issue causing this kafuffle). Firefox releases a new browser every couple of months – sure they are point releases, but there are still rendering bug fixes in there – so the goal posts are just moving they are being flung at a rate of knots.

I’m not saying that the browser developers should go dormant as Microsoft did, but maybe, just maybe being able to lock down a target to work against would make our lives a little more pleasant? I know the open source world has issues with the concept of “stable” code, but this effectively gives us web developers a “stable” baseline to work with – yes there will be bugs, but at least, if we work around the bugs, the hacks won’t break in future versions.

To those that argue this would encourage lazy programmers, maybe, but there are still a lot of people out there that are using tables and spacer gifs to mark up their websites – there will always be slackers, but there will also be those who strive for more. Why should those that are pushing the envelope be punished by a browser upgrade?

Will there still be a problem after February 12?

According to this article, a forced IE 7.0 rollout will occurring about three weeks. So the only people using IE 6.0 will be places that forcibly deny the update (it’s opt-out, not opt-in as it was before). One could argue that such a mechanism, as meta tag switch would have meant that the long suffering IT staff charged with blocking Windows update would have been able to strike that task off their list, as IE 7.0 would drop back to IE 6.0 mode for these users. Therefore, the question should be would this technique ALLEVIATE the problem?

Things the need to happen to make it work:

  1. We need to still be able to use standard mode. If we don’t specify a meta tag, it should default to the latest and greatest rendering engine
  2. The browser vendors need to work out a good way of serving up multiple version of their engines that don’t conflict with each other – maybe some sort of download on demand thing?
  3. If a browser finds a site targeted at a newer version it doesn’t know about, it should try to render it anyway – it is up to the web developers to make sure it degrades nicely (they have to at the moment).
  4. The browser vendors still need to care about standards – they still have to play nice, because this fix doesn’t improved CROSS-BROWSER compatibility.

As long as we, as web developers and they, as browser developers still strive for the holy grail, and they can work out how to have multiple rendering engines coincide with out out having to maintain a separate 500Gb harddrive just to contain them, it might not be as bad an idea as everyone initially thinks it is…

How to lose friends and infuriate people.

Warning: The following post is an usability rant aimed squarely at the incompetent software developers contracted to Citibank. Please enjoy the ride.

When I went to the UK about 4 years ago, I opened a Citibank UK bank account so that I could get paid whilst I was working. The actual account is really great – much better than any account you can get over here in Australia. There are no fees at all – none, nada, zip. At they time they also provided some great overdraft facilities. As I still occasionally do work for UK clients, and as it costs me nothing, it remains opened.

Significant point #1: I can’t go to a branch, and I need to call international to talk to a customer support officer – I rely on internet banking heavily.

Unfortunately, the online banking experience does not reflect the quality of the account. There are so many usability issues, the developers should be brought before some sort of tribunal.

Javascript Keyboard: This is a favourite amoungst banks as they believe it provides security from key logging software. BOLLOCKS! Javascript is a very dynamic language, it would be extremely simple to write a Javascript function that could be injected onto a page which would reveal the password. All a Javascript keyboard does is increase the chance of me getting my password wrong and slows me down. in fact, if someone was shoulder surfing, they would be able able to read my “keypresses” much easier than if I typed them on a normal keyboard. JavaScript keyboards are stupid.

JavaScript Keyboards are stupid.

Secret Question and Answers: Next, Citibank requires you to answer one of five pre-defined question/answer pairs. In a previous session, I was required to spend twenty minutes picking and answering questions. Why twenty minutes? Because you need to enter your username, password twice (both times using the previously labeled stupid Javascript keyboard), then finally pick five out of twenty questions, type in answers, then type in answers AGAIN to confirm them. After you enter an answer, they are automatically starred out, so you can’t see them.

Challenge Questions are not secure. A small amount of digging will allow you to get most of these details about someone. Heck, if you can get hold of someones bank statement, you can work out at least a couple of answers. All they do is make it frustrating for legitimate users. I couldn’t remember if I used capitals (To this day, I’m still not sure if they are case sensitive) or whether I used abbreviations. And what happens if my favourite colour changes? I’m screwed. Challenge questions are stupid!

Challenge questions are stupid

Guess what, I couldn’t remember the specific format of the challenge question I was asked, so I was locked out, which meant I needed to go through the above procedure again. This time, I took too long, so the session timed out.

I click the login link once more, enter my username and password (again, stupid Javascript keyboard) but it confirms that my username is locked. I need to click the “unlock username” link. I click said link, and it tells me I NEED TO ENTER A USERNAME AND PASSWORD. Two problems here:

  1. Generally people do not expect text links to be associated with text boxes. if you want the data in a text box to relate to an action, make that action a button.
  2. There is no indication that I need to fill in this information until AFTER I have tried.

Finally, I have navigated to the “unlock username” page. Only to be presented with another stupid form. This time, I need to fill in my username, card number, e-Pin (welcome back stupid Javascript keyboard) and account number. Now, I don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned, my credit card number is probably more valuable to a thief than my e-Pin, yet the former is in full view of everyone and isn’t protected by stupid virtual keyboards.

The unlock you account screen is stupid!

Now, after attempting this frustrating process a number of times, I am completely locked out from my online account and I will need to call the UK to get it sorted out. Go team Citibank.

So what can they do about this to make the process simpler? I think BankWest has got it right:

  1. They issue a Personal Access Number (PAN) – The number is short, so it is easy to remember, but it is not easily derivable from the account number of any user details.
  2. they politely remind users that they haven’t changed they password in a while. Which is much nicer then forcing me to do it. If I’m stupid enough to not change my password regularly, even when warned, well that is my tough luck.

Other things worth trying:

  1. Limit the amount of money that can be transferred in a day, especially for person-to-person transfers – having access to online banking accounts is not much use unless you can transfer the money out.
  2. Give users the choice of blocking person-to-person transfers and BPay – I only ever check my balance through this system so I have no need for transfer facilities.

The bottom line is these “security” measures aren’t that much more secure that a standard username/password conbination yet they are infinately more annoying and frustrating.


Sorry, the servers down – please proceed to login

I was just logging into my online banking system and was confronted with with error message – besides the typo (possbile?) I find it interesting that there is a button inviting you to login in to a system that is un-available… and yes you can proceed to the login window, and it isn’t until you enter your details again before you get a definitive error message. A good example of what NOT to do.

When is an error message, not really an error message?!