21 December 2004 1 pm est

In today’s Report:
ALA 190
In A List Apart 190 ... carefully crafting cross-column pull-outs.
Going postal for Christmas
The U.S. Postal Service promises “holiday shipping convenience” but delivers wretchedly unsatisfying user experience.
Mac OS X safe update tip
Installing OS X 10.3.7 update without adverse side-effects.

ALA 190

In Issue No. 190 of A List Apart, For People Who Make Websites, we proudly present “Cross-Column Pull-Outs” by Daniel Frommelt:

Print designers like to wrap text around images that sit between columns. Now you can, too. Daniel Frommelt takes us where no web layout has gone before.

(Frommelt is the author of ALA’s previous, two-part series on retooling Slashdot with web standards.)

Going postal for Christmas

Nobody wants to stand in long holiday lines, especially not at the Post Office. That’s why the U.S. Postal Service now lets you “enjoy holiday shipping convenience” online. At least, that’s what they intend to offer. But what the Post Office delivers in many cases is a wretchedly unsatisfying user experience, both during the web transaction and afterwards as well.

Let’s start with the web part. U.S. government sites that serve the public are legally obliged to be accessible to all. Which is undoubtedly why the site doesn’t work in Safari. Or Firefox. Or Opera. Or any Mac browser. Or any Windows browser except a recent version of Internet Explorer. This isn’t just me saying the site ought to work in more than one browser and OS; that’s what U.S. federal law says. But these are mere trifles.

How the site fails in non-IE-Win browsers is particularly galling. It would be one thing if the site immediately blasted error messages telling you to go soak your head if you don’t have the one browser and operating system combination it supports. But this miserable site actually lets you complete 99% of the transaction before failing inexplicably.

Yes, you can fly from screen to screen, typing your sensitive credit card information, clicking buttons, and imagining that you are getting somewhere. It is only when you attempt to print the label that the site stops working (unless you are using IE/Win).

Even at this juncture – after it has wasted 20 minutes of your time – the site does not explain what went wrong. (What went wrong is that you used the wrong computer or browser.) Because there is no clear message, you might waste 20 more minutes trying again with the same browser and OS. (Studies show most users assume site failure is their fault. In the absence of clear, useful error messages, many users repeat the same steps in hopes that somehow things will work this time.)

If you’re a web designer with access to multiple platforms and nothing particular to do for the next hour, you’ll eventually try IE/Windows and the transaction will work. The U.S. government will take your money and let you print out a label for Aunt Susie’s Christmas gift.

At that point, a postal worker is supposed to come to your home and pick up the package – the ultimate in convenience, and a smart move for a government agency that is trying to compete with FedEx and UPS. Golly, if it were true, it would be great.

But if you live in an apartment building in New York City, they won’t come to pick up your package. Not that they tell you that. They don’t tell you anything.

They’ll take your money and let you print your label and let you take the package down to your building’s lobby, where it will sit and rot until sometime after the apocalypse.

I live in a doorman building, so was able to get a third-party, hearsay explanation from my doorman, who said:

“It’s a 9/11 thing. They don’t pick up in New York.”

Here are some suggestions for the U.S. Postal Service’s holiday shipping convenience:

Mac OS X safe update tip

Apple’s 10.3.6 update to OS X Panther worked wonderfully well for many users. But it created problems for many others, including slow startups, bizarre internet connection delays, and the sudden failure of networked drives.

Apple has just solved that problem by introducing version 10.3.7, which unfortunately creates problems for some users including slow startups, bizarre internet connection delays, and the sudden failure of networked drives. Oops.

In our studio we updated to 10.3.7 without any problems by performing the following procedures:

Before installing
  • Delete old font caches using DeepSix or a similar tool. (I like Font Cache Expunger, but the manufacturer of that free tool appears to be in transition.)
  • Use Cocktail’s Pilot mode to repair permissions, run cron scripts, prebind the system, and clean system, user, and internet caches. Set Pilot to restart upon finishing its tasks.
  • Run a full backup.
  • In System Preferences, under Accounts: Startup Items, turn off third-party startup items such as Extensis Suitcase, DragThing, Default Folder, Ittec, and so on.
  • Remove external hard drives from the desktop by dragging their icons to the Trash.
  • It is now safe to open System Preferences, download OS X 10.3.7 update and run the installer. Hit RESTART when prompted to do so after the software finishes installing itself.
After installing and restarting
  • Delete font caches again.
  • Use Cocktail’s Pilot mode to once again repair permissions, run cron scripts, prebind the system, and clean system, user, and internet caches, and so on. Let Cocktail restart the computer after these tasks have been performed..
  • Slowly bring back third-party startup items.
  • After working with the Mac for a while without experiencing problems, run another full backup.

Note that many users can update to 10.3.7 without performing all these steps and without experiencing any problems whatsoever. But performing these steps helps ensure that your upgrade will be trouble-free.

Previously in The Daily Report...

Get a job
London (and Boston) calling.
Music for Elfports
Best Christmas Carol Maker Ever.
“Design Company of the Year”
Creativity honors Pentagram for a year of great design.
Kinja Fix it, Already?
When fake user accounts stay live after launch.