Thursday, 30 July 2009

Do a bit of plumbing with Yahoo! Pipes

A demonstration of a simple Yahoo! Pipe.

Yahoo! Pipes has been around for a while now, but I would like to showcase this excellent tool by demonstrating the creation of an 'On This Day In History' type feed which I have recently created. It is a simple 'Pipe' - many fantastic and complicated uses are possible for mashing up feeds from all sorts of sources - but I hope this is a good 'starter' demo which will encourage people to build something useful for their business sites. You can put a 'Pipe' on any web page, and of course they are particularly suited for sucking into a Webadvantage® module, so businesses who use Glanton Solutions should be particularly interested. Why not create something relevant for your customers and/or employees to give your site enhanced individuality and 'stickiness'?

My demo comes from the website I manage for the Crimean War Research Society. Rather esoteric you say? Yes, just a bit! However, this particular 'Pipe' can be easily modified to fit any number of situations.

It all started about four years ago when I decided that some sort of 'On This Day' feature would be good on the society website - not just 'on this day in history', but specifically 'on this day during the Crimean War'. I was inspired by the fact we had a chronological list of main events during the war on our site, amounting to 103 dates from 1853 to 1856 inclusive.

Could I expand this and re-jig it so it was a list of 365 - plus one for Feb 29 1856, the day in that leap year when the armistice was signed - and make the right event(s) image appear at the top of our homepage on the right date...?

First I created a spreadsheet with my 366 rows and two columns, one for date and one containing the text. This required considerable off-and-on research and wasn't completed for a few months. Next I found a piece of free javascript which had been written to put a different image in an iframe on each of the seven days of a week. Hmm... surely I could play with the javascript and make it do the same, but for every day of the year, including leap years?

So I set about making 366 gifs of my daily texts. This was quite tedious! I then played with the javascript - again quite tedious as every day of the year had to be identified. But, however large and clumsy this appears (the javascript file is quite long and there are 366 gifs sitting in their own folder at a server), it worked; the resultant code for the iframe is deceptively neat and tidy and can still be seen in perfect operation today at

Below is a diagram of how it works [click on each image to view at full size]:

However, more recently I had become fascinated by the idea of providing the whole thing as an RSS feed so that people could put it on their own site, or suck it into a feed reader. How to do it? To start with I thought a combination of Feedity and Yahoo! Pipes might do the trick. Feedity is a very neat tool with which you can create an RSS feed from a webpage which doesn't have one. It is very cute, and I have used it elsewhere, but the free version only allows you up to 10 posts in the resulting feed. As I'm way too cheap to pay for one of the pro deals at Feedity, this clearly wasn't going to work for my 366 items. Yahoo! Pipes on its own would clearly have to be the answer - I would have to work out what was going to be the best format to suck in my data. I looked at XML, but ended up converting my original XLS spreadsheet to CSV (Comma Seperated Values) and adding a few columns to define the navigation and add a link to the final feed. Then I uploaded it to a server.

The whole Pipes interface and drawing board is wonderfully designed: you really feel as if you are doing the plumbing! The first thing to put on the drawing board was a 'Fetch CSV' module, which happens to be the first one in the 'Source' folder. It was then a simple matter to enter the URL of my CSV file and give names to its five columns. Now at this stage all you would get as output is the whole CSV file as 366 posts in an RSS feed.

So from the 'Operator' menu I selected the 'Filter' module, and the 'Date builder' from the 'Date' menu. See image below. The date for my purposes had to be 'today' and this had to be connected to the 'Day' and 'Month' columns of the CSV file, restricting the filter's output to the right day in the right month.

The resulting Yahoo! Pipe is here.

The great thing about Pipes is that there are hundreds published and you can clone ones that you think will work for you to your own free account. There you can modify them precisely to your specifications - or if no one has done something similar in the past, you can start from scratch. The potential for business websites is enormous: from mash-ups of news feeds about your particular industry, through comparative prices of raw materials to 'quotes of the day' or 'did you know that' - the latter two ideas could use a clone of my Pipe as a base from where to suck in you own CSV file. The output of your Pipe can be pumped into various social media sites, got as a 'badge', RSS, JSON, PHP or CSV, or sent by email or phone.

Our next post will be Glanton Solutions personnel giving their personal recommendations for free tools and apps they can't live without. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Good Checkouts...

(or I must be going soft...)

As something of an antidote to my last grumpy post about terrible checkouts ( being such a classic example), I thought I might make a list of my favourite checkouts. Personal and partial, but giving examples of how to do it right.

I started with the idea of collecting a 'top ten' list from among the biggest online retailers, mixed with a personal group of perhaps less well-known sites that I happen to use regularly.

Ten? Some hope. (Bit ambitious aren't we?) Struggling to four, more like.

It seems that all the really big online retailers are prepared to sacrifice following the Ecommerce-guide and Jakob Nielsen's advice and are forcing customers to register before they make their first purchase. Exactly as Nielsen said. I can only think that they have weighed up the pros and cons and have cynically decided that if they stick with the pre-sale compulsory registration method they will eventually groom potential customers into accepting this as the norm. To a very great extent this has already happened of course. And everybody is agreed that there are advantages in registering for regular customers. And those regular customers will forget that they had to "create an account" before their first purchase. (I have been shopping at Amazon for so long I had to visit the site anonymously to remind myself that, yes, you must pre-purchase register there too.)

Before I start the list proper I would like to give honourable mention to Deutsche Bahn's (German Railways) English language site. I just can't get them onto my full list because of other failures - it's tough stuff selling travel tickets online - but they do try. Look at this:

Isn't that a good set of options to give potential customers? I think so.

So, my list will have to include sites that make you pre-register, or I will have virtually no list at all. And yes, good old Amazon is the first on the list. World leader: their website is to online retailing as the BBC is to online news. An industry standard.

Second onto my list is They have a good looking site and clean, clear checkout. And look at this:

No stupid 'title' field! (Or 'salutation' as some fools call it: presumably imagining it to be 'PC') Hurrah! Just ask for the name as it appears on the card!

Cafepress do mess things up a little by making you register at the end of the billing process, but all in all they have a nice, easy to use site and checkout.

Third onto my list is one of the giants: Yes, they make you register first:

but the site is fresh and easy to use and I like the address and credit card form page:

Single name field again gets a big 'tick', plus a straightfoward postcode checker and recognition that that doesn't always work and only covers the UK. No stress there.

Fourth, and quite simply my favourite checkout anywhere, is that used by the Documents Online service of the UK National Archives. Below are captures of the three simple stages you go through. OK, I concede that they have a much simpler brief than most online checkouts: customers are only buying PDF downloads - there is no messing around with delivery addresses or 'special extras' in the equation. But they don't make you register, though you can if you wish, and as long as your plastic is in order and you have a valid email address, they'll sell to you. The people who designed it clearly have real adeptitude. If only every checkout designer would use this basic example as their starting point!

Finally I can't resist mentioning some comedians - I mean that in the nicest possible way. Staples are one of the very biggest online retailers on the planet. Their UK-based checkout appears fairly unexceptional: yes you must register first, blah blah, and the whole thing works pretty well without being what you might call attractive. But the laugh comes when you get to enter your name. They have a title field, but it's not compulsory (phew!), but wait a minute - it does have a drop-down of choices. See left. Great! Ho ho ho. I want to be a voluntary 'other' please...

Saturday, 11 July 2009

How good is your checkout?

Do you have an e-commerce operation? How neglected is your checkout? Is your online shop all wonderful and clever and cute and bang up to date, but with a shopping cart and checkout bolted on to it which looks like the snailmail order form off the back of a magazine - circa 1970?

I first wrote a similar piece more than ten years ago when I was working in e-commerce full-time and had become very frustrated by high-stress, user-unfriendly checkouts. Complacently I supposed everything had changed. For many it has: most e-commerce sites now have a respectable checkout. Most. But many - large businesses included - still have a 'nightmare' bolted onto the end of their attractive, slick and well-oiled shop.

How often do you test your checkout? How often do you survey your customers about its user-friendliness and lack of irritants? And if you do, do you act on the results?

There are some very useful guidelines for e-commerce site designers at the The article was first published in 2006, but is just as important in 2009. With their page about checkouts on half my screen I am going to pretend to run through the buying process of major British online retailer and see how they shape up. Now you may think it is a little unfair of me to do a hatchet job on just one site. But why not? Everything below exists - or doesn't exist - on their site. Also, space is limited and's checkout is a very good example of how not to do it... and you never know, this just might persuade them to have a rethink. Incidently, I say 'pretend' to go through the buying process because I know from experience that I can't actually buy anything from them even if I wanted too! (All will be revealed.)

So here we are with our chosen item in the shopping basket. It is our first time buying from them and we don't want anything else, so we can go straight to the checkout. But wait -

The Ecommerce-guide has the following paragraph in its advice about checkouts:

The Big Bugaboo: Having to Register
Everyone seems to know it - merchants included - but it still causes aggravation on countless checkout pages: When a shopper has to register on a site before buying, it hurts sales. "We know users hate that, and we know it's very error prone," Nielsen [Jakob Nielsen] says. "Requiring registration before or during a purchase drives away business."

Bearing that in mind, let's click on's checkout button. What do we get? This:

(Image capture courtesy of Snagit - one of our favs here at Glanton Solutions)

Oops. Ooh-dear! Clunk. Fallen at the first. OK, never mind, we really want to buy this thing, so we have to grudgingly click on the purple register button. (Before we move on, just note the perfectly normal selection of 'plastic' logos - implying that we can use any of those cards.) So what do we see first in the registration process? This:

(Another Snagit capture, with the 'title field' drop-down added)

Now the Ecommerce-guide doesn't say anything specifically on its checkout page about offending customers, but it is something of a no-brainer and very important nevertheless. Very important, but it should just happen naturally. It shouldn't need me, or anyone else, to bang on about it. Note that the 'title' field above is compulsory (viz asterisk).


The only version of a customer's name you actually need to make a sale is the version which appears on their 'plastic'. So give them one field and ask them to fill it in exactly like that. You don't actually need a 'title' field at all. You certainly don't need a compulsory one, and anyone who thinks adding 'Ms' to the bottom of a list of 'Mr', 'Mrs' and 'Miss' makes it inclusive and 'politically correct', is being very smug and needs to drag themselves into the 20th Century, let alone the 21st.

The only acceptable, non-irritating, inoffensive kind of 'title' field is a voluntary one. And blank to boot, so that any entry is user-defined. But it is still amazing just how many compulsory 'title' fields with just this absurdly limited anglo-saxon-centric selection are to be found around the web. Other than identifying gender by the back door - and maybe marital status if your victim is a woman - and getting up a lot of noses, it achieves nothing at all. Comic - if it wasn't tragic.

Now I can hear the customer-information harvesters in marketing departments tut-tutting and asking where are they going to get their info from if they can't force customers to hand it over. Well, we need to make them go and read the Ecommerce-guide and Jakob Nielsen again. If users have a good, hassle-free experience with your online shop they are much more likely to return, and much more likely to sign up to a voluntary registration scheme if they can see clear benefits for so doing. Your voluntary registration can include voluntary questions about gender and marital status if you really think it matters to your business.

Question: What do you want to do?
Answer: Make a sale, silly.
Question: Do you want to risk that sale by making customers give up personal information - information you certainly wouldn't get from a cash sale in a bricks & mortar shop?
Answer: No!
(If yes, then you are in the wrong job.)

Back to our checkout adventure. In reality I might not actually be 'Mr' Thomas Muir, but for the sake of our investigation I will grit my teeth, and move on.

(So what's the score so far? " - nul points!")

Next up we get this form:

Humph. That's a bit odd. My billing address for Mastercard is in Greece (Link for the benefit of PCWorld execs), and I have a sneaky feeling that this postcode search isn't going to recognise my Greek one. OK let's see if we can enter my billing address by clicking that blue hyperlink about doing it manually. This is what we get -

Note the pre-set 'country' field. Huh? I already know that, for perfectly sound and comprehensible business reasons only deliver in the UK, but that's where I want the laptop I'm trying to buy to be delivered... Starting to get a bit hot and bothered now. Deep breath. Perhaps we can enter my UK address - which isn't a billing address anymore - and hope to be given the chance to change it at the 'order review' stage...

But it was no good.

Readers will have realised by now that this is a true story. The experience was in 2008, but I see that nothing has changed. I wanted to buy a new laptop and have it sent to a colleague at a UK address so he could bring it out to my Greek island when he visited the following month. I wanted to use my Mastercard which is issued in conjunction with my GBP international bank account based in Jersey. The billing address is in Greece, that being my primary residence. That's what credit cards are for, right? Right.

Instead of giving up, as many of their potential customers surely must, I emailed PCWorld's sales department, and asked them why they didn't want my custom.

On 22 September 2008 I got the following reply:

Dear Thomas Muir,

Thank you for your email dated 19th September 2008.
PC World only accepts registered credit cards and billing address from the UK. Please accept my apologies that I am unable to assist you on this occasion.
Yours sincerely,

Great. I asked them again why they wouldn't accept a (presumably automatically nasty/untrustworthy?) 'foreign' billing address. This is what I got back on the 24th:

Thank you for your email dated 23rd September 2008.
As stated previously, it is PC Worlds (sic) online policy that we can only accept registered credit cards and billing address from the UK, due to the distance selling regulations. However, you could use your card personally instore.
Please accept my apologies for any difficulties you have experienced in this matter.
Yours sincerely,

Distance Selling Regulations? Really...?

I wrote back pointing out - of course - that the Distance Selling Regulations had, and have, nothing to do with it. They are to protect me, the customer, not an excuse for retailers to introduce restrictions of their own. I got a reply from a different operative admitting that that was indeed a mistake, and apologising for it. But adding that PC World's parent company had developed this policy of UK delivery-UK billing address. End of conversation.

PC World lost their sale; I have a new laptop from a different source; PC World's checkout is still just as dire. The only possible explanation for the policy about billing addresses that I can come up with is that executives (or lawyers) at the parent company (DSG International) think that it is an added security measure. If that is indeed the case, then they are sadly lacking in adeptitude.

What completely baffles me about PC World's policy is why they should throw away a whole sector of potential sales. Now some may be thinking that if they only deliver in the UK, realistically how many attempted purchases are going to come from overseas credit cards anyway? No doubt PC World use this muddled thinking to comfort and reassure themselves about their peculiar policy. I say what about all the tens of thousands of people worldwide with relatives in the UK - grandchildren perhaps? Surely this is a classic e-commerce sale? (Think Amazon; think Interflora) The new laptop for Christmas perhaps - bought from India or Australia and delivered to the grandchild's door in Essex. Surely PC World can't have overlooked this, can they? Shouldn't they be actively encouraging it?

I don't know whether the credit card companies are aware of PC World's policy. If I was Mastercard, or any of the others, I wouldn't be very impressed when I found out that one of our merchants was excluding one - ahem, rather large - group of our card holders.

The deal is, if you see the sign, you can use the card...

If PC World insist on their odd policy, for reasons best known to themselves, then surely they should do their very best to make their shopping cart/checkout more user-friendly: put this in the bottom of the item template, so everybody sees it straight away:

" only accept orders for UK delivery, paid for from a UK billing address"

Stick it everywhere in fact. Right up front on the entry page for the online shop. All they've got is the credit and debit card logos, as noted above, which is just a little misleading. A search through 'Help & Support' to 'Terms & Conditions' at only reveals which cards customers can use; not a mention of the company's strange restriction. They may have something about it somewhere on the site, but I can't find it in any of the obvious places.

OK, we've had a bit of a laugh (albeit strained) at the expense of PC World. But there is a very serious message here. PC World is one of the UK's biggest online retailers* and it's a sad day when they apparently think their online shopping experience is perfectly adequate. Other online shops might reasonably be expected to use as a role model. Heaven help them.

The message is clear: make sure your shopping cart and checkout are as simple and straightforward to use as possible. Don't irritate users by making them jump through all sorts of hoops. Don't subject them to compulsory info-harvesting. Don't tell them things at the end of the process which you should have told them at the start. There is a good adage which everyone connected with e-commerce (and indeed websites in general) should remember:

Don't do it just because you can; do it because you should.


*In November 2007 PC World was ranked 24 in a list of the UK's biggest online retailers by I couldn't find any more recent figures. However, they are not currently in the top ten. TM.

PS - Full email conversation with their sales department supplied to proven PC World executives on request. If they are interested. Full consultation with Glanton Solutions regarding their entire internet/intranet operations at a negotiated price. If they are interested.