Apple DVD Player’s Way of Failing Silently

Our media collection contains a number of DVDs whose region code is 2, because I had bought them when I was still living in Germany. The region code of our DVD player is 1, though, and unfortunately, it is one of the few models for which you can’t find an unlock code online. (Here’s an older blog post, dating back almost ten years, on how simple it usually is to change a DVD player’s region code.)

For reading legacy CD-ROMs, we use an external USB optical drive with our Macs, so I decided to try the following route: set the external drive’s region code to 2, play movies with the DVD Player application on the Mac, and stream audio and video to our TV via an AppleTV using AirPlay .

A map view in DVD Player's preferences panel shows the six geographic regions and their codes. It also displays the region code of the DVD that is currently in the drive, and the drive's own code.

Things looked promising — until I activated AirPlay on the Mac: While the computer’s desktop was mirrored on the TV, and the movie’s audio played through the TVs speakers, a gray rectangle had replaced the video viewport in DVD Player.

The Mac's desktop, showing the DVD Player video window with all the controls, like timeline, playback control buttons, etc. In this case, though, since AirPlay is activated, there is just a even gray rectangle in the window instead of the video signal from the DVD.

To sort out the problem, I connected the Mac directly to the TV via an HDMI cable. Interestingly, that changed the display resolution, but the movie did appear on both the internal and external screens.

Third-party software to the rescue

Next, I opened the DVD in VLC Player and tried using AirPlay again. Now, finally, everything worked as intended: The video and audio played on the Mac’s screen, and both were properly streaming to the TV using the default resolution.

The same setup as above works just fine with VLC Player, a third-party video player application. Its main window properly displays the video stream, even when AirPlay is activated and streaming to the same destination.

Considering that the video was grayed out in DVD Player as well as in my screenshots, unless I was using VLC Player, leads me to believe that Apple intentionally blocks playing DVD movies via AirPlay for “copy protection” reasons. Being able to stream HD videos via AirPlay from iTunes without any hiccups is further indication that this is not a technical issue, but a conscious design decision.

Failing silently is among the Mortal Sins of UX Design

Enough has been written about how “Digital Rights Management” punishes honest, paying media customers.

The annoying aspect about this particular experience, however, is the utter lack of meaningful feedback: How about popping up a dialog box that states that, “For copyright reasons, you cannot stream a DVD via AirPlay”? In fact, that message could appear right inside the DVD Player video window where the user is looking for the now-missing video signal.

Instead, all you get is a gray window where the movie used to appear.

Failing silently like this will lead users to wonder whether there is a technical problem, and likely make them trouble-shoot their setup, and search online for more details on the issue. Apple could easily avoid this waste of time and effort by showing a simple notification — even if that might come across as somewhat embarrassing for a company that takes an outspoken (and highly commendable) public stance against “copy protection” mechanisms.

Error Messages in Bounced Emails

Error messages are always annoying, but designers and developers can make them less painful by addressing three questions (in a language that is meaningful to their users):

  1. What went wrong?
  2. Why did it go wrong?
  3. What can the user do to fix it?

This applies to all error messages, regardless of the context in which they appear. Case in point: Messages that mail servers add when they reject — or “bounce” — an email.

Feels like email support purgatory

When I tried to send a command to an email list server a few months ago, the email was rejected with this error message:

SMTP error from remote mail server after initial connection:
host [REDACTED]: 554 [REDACTED] ESMTP not accepting messages

The message text makes it sound as if this server is not accepting any messages. But then there’s the 554 error code, which is commonly used when a server rejects an email which it considers to be spam.

To fix the problem, I contacted the help desk at the university that hosts this list server, using their publicly accessible website.

They responded via email, saying that they had assigned and update the support ticket, and included a link to the ticket on their website. After clicking the link, I was asked to sign into the university website — which I couldn’t do, since I was not a student there and, thus, had no account for the site.

My direct email response bounced as well, so I had to open another ticket to follow up with them. In response to which I received another update email with the same kind of useless-to-me link. So I submitted yet another support ticket, explaining to them the original problem; that my direct responses to them bounced too; and that I could not sign into their support website, either.

Although they had already received complete headers from my original email and from the bounced response to their help desk’s email, their next response said:

Please attach or copy/paste the original message to the ticket so we can review of [sic] troubleshooting purposes.

Picture me, sitting in front of my computer, a desperate look on my face, flailing my arms wildly, and screaming, “BUT HOW?!”

So I simply gave up.

My original email just wasn’t important enough that I would endure this nonsense any longer.

A clear and simple path towards un-blocking your emails

A more meaningful error message for the exact same condition (namely that the receiving server intentionally rejects an incoming message) is this one from EarthLink:

SMTP error from remote mail server after MAIL FROM:[REDACTED] SIZE=2379:
host [REDACTED]: 550 IP [REDACTED] is blocked by EarthLink. 
Go to earthlink.net/block for details.

It clearly explains the issue, and does so in a language that does not require in-depth IT knowledge to understand. More importantly, the page that the included link points to answers the three key questions listed earlier:

  1. What went wrong,
  2. why it went wrong, and
  3. what you can do to fix it.

The EarthLink page provides detailed information, starting with a

While it was still a bit of a hassle to have our server removed from EarthLink’s black list, the error message and the support page provide enough information to understand what to do next.

An essential component of this process is that the admins at EarthLink provide an email address — blockedbyearthlink@abuse.earthlink.net — that does not block any incoming messages. It’s this detail that makes direct email communication with the support team possible, so that the workflow is much more convenient and efficient than what the above university had to offer.

Addressing rejected emails the Google way (and it ain’t pretty)

Alas, sometimes even a meaningful error message and a link to further information still doesn’t suffice.

For reasons unbeknownst to me, Google has been considering me a spammer for the last couple of months. Emails to Gmail accounts regularly end up in the recipients’ spam folder, even though the messages’ contents don’t feel at all “spammy” to me. We also never found evidence (in the log files, etc.) of spam emails being sent from the root server that we share with some friends.

This problem has gotten to the point where Gmail has rejected my emails outright. The error message that was contained in the responses is very well-phrased, and it also contains a link to further information.

Delivery to the following recipient failed permanently:

    [redacted]

Technical details of permanent failure: 
Message rejected by Google Groups. Please visit 

http://mail.google.com/support/answer/188131?hl=en

to review our Bulk Email Senders Guidelines.

This does not make sense, though: The messages were sent to individual Gmail accounts, not to Google Groups, and they did not originate from an account that would even remotely qualify as a “Bulk Email Sender,” either.

Following the link to their support page provides an “outstanding” example for what I think is the biggest flaw in Google’s overall philosophy.

Under the heading,

For Google, there is a solution to every problem — but it is always a technological one.

If you have any problems with a Google product as a regular user, you can’t simply call a human at a support hotline. Instead, you’re referred to a support forum, which is often maintained by other users (but no official Google representatives), or you’re offered another tool to help you fix the problem you have with the first tool.

Same here: The help page explains perfectly well what happened, and why it might have happened. But the question “what do I do now?” is “answered” by pointing to the Gmail Postmaster Tools.

The

The help page for these Postmaster Tools states that this is for you, “[i]f you send a large volume of emails to Gmail users.” What, then, if it’s been only a handful of emails that were rejected, as in my case?

What’s more, the Postmaster Tools can only be used if you have your own domain. So what do you do if you use another large email provider like, say, Yahoo! or Hotmail, without your own domain?

Considering how many companies are using Gmail as their sole email service, not being able to reach these companies, because Gmail blocks your emails for some obscure reason, is not just annoying, but actually a bit scary.

Not having any way to easily fix any blocking, though, is just unforgivable, especially when we’re talking about a modern-day IT giant with a resource pool like Google’s.

Two of my rejected emails were job applications. I don’t know what, specifically, was wrong with them. But I do know that I have no alternative communication route into these companies, short of stalking their employees online. All because Google does not let me contact a human support person to help me solve this.

And people ask me why I am so critical of Google sometimes.

Unsubscribing from E-Mail Newsletters

Corporate newsletters that are actually worth reading are few and far between. If it wasn’t for rare gems like Sweetwater Music’s inSync emails with their blend of music tech news and production tips, I probably wouldn’t subscribe to any of them.

That is why I normally unsubscribe from email newsletters as soon as they show up in my inbox. I seriously appreciate it when the sender makes that process quick and painless, so I can focus on emails I actually care about.

Unfortunately, however, most companies — whether intentionally or due to ignorance — make unsubscribing unnecessarily tedious.

Haven’t signed up to our newsletter yet? We’ll do that for you, then!

A few months ago, I had ordered business cards from Moo. Their site provides a solid user experience and the quality of the final product is excellent.

But then they sent me this just last week:

According to Moo's email, they

While some marketers might think that this is a slick approach to lure customers into reading their company’s newsletter, this approach annoys me a lot because now it’s on me to take additional steps if I do not want to subscribe to these emails. Which, of course, reflects back on the entire company, and makes me wonder how customer-oriented they actually are. Most importantly, I’ll unsubscribe anyway.

A much friendlier way would be to send me an email which courteously invites me to sign up and includes a “Yes, please sign me up” button. That way, if I am not interested, I’ll simply delete the email, and I’m done.

Thankfully, the unsubscribe button in Moo’s email is big and bold, and impossible to miss. When you click it, you’ll see this in your browser:

The page contains the site's full masthead with the main navigation, as well as their full footer with circa 35 links. Plus three marketing blurbs about next day delivery, etc. The actual unsubscribe notice loses a lot of visual weight this way, as do the

If all I want to do is to quickly unsubscribe from their newsletter, there is way too much information on this page. It takes extra cognitive load to take it all in and understand where the actual confirmation message is. Which is not a trivial point, because you have to confirm your unsubscribe request by clicking a button.

And see what their designers did there? Thanks to the color selection, the “lifeless gray” Confirm button has less visual prominence than the “vibrant green” Cancel link next to it, so your eyes are (intentionally) guided to the latter.

Showing the same plethora of navigation options and marketing texts as on the previous page, Moo is now

What I want to do now? Since I came to the site to unsubscribe from the unsolicited newsletter, I don’t really want to spend any more time here. In fact, this has already taken too long, so why try to make me spend even more time on the site?

Great with civil liberties, not quite so great with web design

I have deep respect for the work of the American Civil Liberties Union — but not so much for the design of their unsubscribe confirmation screen.

The page is separated into three groups:

What is the difference between “Membership emails” and “Membership email lists?” Why is the email address displayed in four places? Do all of the three Update buttons submit changes across the entire form? Why do two sections use radio buttons, while the other uses checkboxes?

Especially in the context of this form’s complexity and vagueness, it isn’t very helpful that the confirmation message generically refers to “updating your email preferences.” If you make the process so complex, why not expressly state which emails, if any, I should expect to still receive in the future?

The confirmation text only states

A webpage in true Redmond fashion

Microsoft brings the complexity of the unsubscribe page (on which I arrived after clicking “unsubscribe” in a promo email from Microsoft-owned Skype) to a whole new level.

Their designers chose tiny text for the body copy, dropped in rich Windows 7’ish icons, placed links all over the place, and threw in an entire FAQ for good measure.

Gosh, where to begin.

Specifically note how the checkboxes are mapped backwards: Checking an option does not mean that you want to receive that newsletter, but that you want to unsubscribe from it. Which is like saying, “Choose ‘Yes’ if you do not want to receive this.” Very odd, very confusing.

What you see after clicking Save feels as bloated as the form itself.

The confirmation contains four bullet points, listing which changes have been made to the subscription settings. Interestingly, this page uses the same inverted-logic as the configuration page: E.g., one bullet item says,

It’s commendable that this page details what changes you’ve just made. But why is it presented in such a convoluted layout? I’d find it much easier to grasp if the page contained two bulleted lists, one with the offerings I am now subscribed to, and one that shows what’s still available, but that I have not subscribed to.

(That said, this page recreates the order the item order found on the configuration page, so there is a perfectly solid reason for this layout. I’d still find it more accessible to group items by subscribed/unsubscribed, instead.)

In my case, things were even simpler, since I had unsubscribed from all of Microsoft’s promotional emails. Instead of seven lines of clunky text, a single one would have sufficed: “You will no longer receive any promotional emails from us.” A little bit of server-side logic can do usability wonders sometimes.

Killing time with an unsubscribe page

And this years award for Quirkiest Email Unsubscribe Page goes to Sears. And they’ve truly earned it.

When you click Unsubscribe in one of their email newsletters, the marketing department at Sears doesn’t think it’s enough to confront you with a bloated form. They also offer you four video clips to choose from! Maybe some customer will find these funny, but when I clicked Unsubscribe in their email, I had already made my decision, so why go to these lengths to try to make me stay?

Sometimes I wish I could see into a marketer’s brain and understand where ideas such as the above page come from…

The benchmark design for unsubscribing from email newsletters

What, then, is a great way to handle an unsubscribe request?

As I had said at the beginning, for me this is all about quickly and conveniently canceling an email subscription, so ideally I would click on the unsubscribe link in an email and simply see a confirmation that I’ve been unsubscribed.

Like this:

Short, sweet, and to the point, this page only says

Click the link, read a very clean, very concise message presented in a light-weight design, and DONE!

This specimen pushes absolutely zero marketing fluff on you, and you don’t have to take any further steps to “confirm” your decision. And just in case that you unsubscribed by mistake, there’s a handy and friendly link to undo that change.

So: Which of these workflows would you prefer? (Yes, that’s a trick question.)

Don’t underestimate the importance of the unsubscribe experience

When designing an unsubscribe workflow for email newsletters, keep in mind that people who follow that process don’t necessarily abandon your company for good. They might just be overwhelmed with email.

How efficient and user-friendly this workflow is, will reflect how your company — and overall brand — values your customers’ time in general.