Archive — March 2018

Authenticity and character

Authenticity and character

An interesting comparison between modern-day radio presenting and that of previous generations: “That smiling deep disc jockey voice, broadcasting seemingly from a parallel mid-Atlantic world.”

Rarely has radio been quite so authentic.

In previous generations, it was enough to have a ‘voice on a stick’ as one of my colleagues used to call it…

Now – you tune in and you hear real life.

Listening to clips of old radio programmes, it is extraordinary how much times have changed. The Radio 1 Vintage broadcasts last year as part of Radio 1’s 50th birthday celebrations highlighted this starkly. Tony Blackburn’s live recreation of the first Radio 1 breakfast show even skipped over some of the content, tacitly acknowledging that it some of it was too cheesy (or perhaps offensive?) to be broadcast today.

There is an argument to say that people sometimes want to hear a bit of showbiz, and don’t necessarily always want to hear a voice that could be their neighbour’s.

But in the era of Spotify, a “voice on a stick” won’t do. Good content is essential for the long-term survival of radio.

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The Dunning-Kruger effect in innovation

The Dunning-Kruger effect in innovation

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes the phenomenon whereby people with relatively little experience feel a high degree of confidence. This point is known as Mt Stupid.

Following this is the valley of despair, where the person loses their confidence, before slowly climbing the slope of enlightenment. The shape of this curve is strikingly similar to the Gartner hype cycle.

It is always tempting to think that I myself was atop Mt Stupid a couple of years ago, thereby making me on my way up the slope of enlightenment. However, I think this every time I see it.

This article makes the wise point that you can be on the slope of enlightenment for some issues, and still climbing your way to Mt Stupid on others.

However, given that the human condition makes it difficult for each of us to realise the limitations of our own knowledge, we’ll have to live with temporary outbursts of hubris. There is no reason to be self-complacent. Everybody is a wise expert in only a few things, while still climbing Mt Stupid in many, many others.

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Every Recording of Gymnopedie 1 — Hey Exit

Today is Piano Day. I am in favour of this. The piano is the best instrument. 🎹

The clip above is of every recording of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie № 1, put together by an artist called Hey Exit. Each recording is timestretched to the length of the longest one, and they are placed on top of each other. It’s a brilliant idea, with a truly ethereal sound.

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Strengthening the foundations under the Overton Window without moving it

Strengthening the foundations under the Overton Window without moving it

Should you refuse to argue with someone who is very wrong, in case it accidentally lends their argument some legitimacy? Katja Grace argues that this could be damaging.

In short: we don’t want to give the new generation the best sincere arguments against V [a terrible view], because that would be admitting that a reasonable person might believe V. Which seems to get in the way of the claim that V is very, very bad. Which is not only a true claim, but an important thing to claim, because it discourages people from believing V.

But we actually know that a reasonable person might believe V, if they don’t have access to society’s best collective thoughts on it. Because we have a whole history of this happening almost all of the time.

Thought-provoking, especially in the context of my recent posts about not feeding the trolls.

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User experience research for the University of Edinburgh’s API Service

Presenting findings of our user research for the API Service

User experience research for the University of Edinburgh’s API Service

I have been leading some user research for a project at the University of Edinburgh to develop API Service. This post on the University Website Programme blog outlines the steps we went through in the first phase of the research. This included interviewing developers, running workshops, and developing personas and journey maps.

This has been a successful and rewarding project. It has been particularly interesting for me to do some UX work that wasn’t necessarily to do with a website. There will be a couple more blog posts about it to come.

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Photo — 2018-03-28

"Did you know that in Edinburgh, there are more statues of dogs than there are of women?"

“Did you know that in Edinburgh, there are more statues of dogs than there are of women?”

From Message from the Skies, the virtual walking tour run in Edinburgh during January.

The story for the walking tour was written by Val McDermid, and celebrated the work of Edinburgh’s literary women, many of whom are unsung compared to the men.

Message from the Skies at Greyfriars Kirkyard

The walking tour ended in Greyfriars Kirkyard, where these spectacular neon signs ensured that women writers had their name in lights.

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An ode to writing with a human voice

An ode to writing with a human voice

More on the apparent decline of blogs from the Government Digital Service (GDS).

This article makes the excellent counterpoint to a recent GDS post apparently attempting to address the debate around the quality of their recent blogging efforts.

The measures of success cited include levels of ‘engagement’, aligning posts with campaigns, and instances of very senior officials publishing posts. This, to me, fundamentally misunderstands the value of blogging compared with more ‘formal’ communications. Aligning blogs more closely with PR activity doesn’t strengthen blogs— it nullifies their distinct value.

Of course, it is not just GDS who have suffered.

In the early days, blogging and social media was so vital precisely because it wasn’t traditional communications. When the communications people caught wind of the popularity of social media, they took control (which, for some reason, comms people are obsessed with). The comms crowd and the marketing mob turned social media into yet another stifled channel, designed to control the message, thereby destroying actual valuable communication.

See also:

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Dundee’s new dawn: From invisible town to Scotland’s coolest city

Dundee’s new dawn: From invisible town to Scotland’s coolest city

In September, Scotland’s first dedicated design museum arrives in the shape of the V&A Dundee. For the city’s inhabitants, there’s a cautious optimism in the air.

A good, balanced piece about Dundee. Cautious optimism is a great way to describe the atmosphere of Dundee.

When I moved to Dundee in 2010, people told me it was up and coming. The waterfront area has been in a constant state of flux, as 40-year-old buildings make way for a new masterplan. The roadworks and upheaval are dealt with through gritted teeth, in recognition that this is all for the greater good in the long term.

Dundee is still up and coming in 2018. The question is: when will it actually come up?

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Facebook quietly hid webpages bragging of ability to influence elections

Facebook quietly hid webpages bragging of ability to influence elections

Facebook have described the idea that they influence election results as “crazy”. It’s funny that they used to actually brag about their ability to help people win elections.

Their entire business model depends on them allowing advertisers to get results. It is absurd for them to claim they can help get results for advertisers, but not if they are political advertisers.

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Small b blogging

Small b blogging

I love this idea of small b blogging — pursuing meaningful connections over mass pageviews. You might call it anti-clickbait.

Much of the content that is crammed down our throats through giant platforms like Facebook is designed to grab eyeballs, pageviews and clicks. This sort of content brings transient pleasure, but little real value.

This is similar to my reasons for starting blogging again. While I’m sure I won’t ever again get the same amount of pageviews I used to get in 2006–2007, there is something about regularly reaching a smaller number of people to share something worth writing home about.

It’s a virtuous cycle of making interesting connections while also being a way to clarify and strengthen my own ideas. I’m not reaching a big audience by any measure but the direct impact and benefit is material.

Small b blogging is learning to write and think with the network. Small b blogging is writing content designed for small deliberate audiences and showing it to them. Small b blogging is deliberately chasing interesting ideas over pageviews and scale. An attempt at genuine connection vs the gloss and polish and mass market of most “content marketing”.

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What makes the perfect office?

What makes the perfect office?

Lessons for architects, designers and managers. What research has shown about office design and productivity.

It turns out that the most productive spaces aren’t the ones that are tasteful, “look professional” or have been designed by a starchitect. They are spaces that empowered people to make the space their own.

… [T George] Harris scoured the academic literature for any evidence that good design helped people to get things done, or to be happier in the office. He couldn’t find it. “People suddenly put into “good design” did not seem to wake up and love it,” he wrote. What people love, instead, is the ability to control the space in which they work – even if they end up filling the space with kitsch, or dog photos, or even – shudder – garden gnomes.

Trained designers tend to have a strong idea of what good taste is. But that often flies in the face of what most people actually want.

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Relax! You’ll be more productive

Relax! You’ll be more productive

A rare beast: an article about productivity that doesn’t just contain the same old stuff you’ve heard before. This mainly focuses on why often it’s better to do less to get more productive.

But I was most intrigued by the revelation that sleep cycles actually continue when you are awake:

The difference is that during the day we move from a state of alertness progressively into physiological fatigue approximately every 90 minutes. Our bodies regularly tell us to take a break, but we often override these signals and instead stoke ourselves up with caffeine, sugar and our own emergency reserves — the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.

Working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity.

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Strategic thinking with blog posts and stickers

Strategic thinking with blog posts and stickers

There has been a lot of chat recently about the apparent decline in quality of Government Digital Service (GDS) blogs. That debate isn’t explicitly mentioned here by former GDS employee Giles Turnbull. But perhaps this is the blogging equivalent of a subtweet (a subblog?).

The idea is basically this: you think out loud, on your blog, over a long period of time. At least months. Probably years. Each new post is about one thing, and tells a single story of its own, but also adds to the longer narrative. Each new post helps you tell that longer, deeper story, and becomes another linkable part of the timeline.

This also feeds into the wider commentary surrounding the apparent (or perhaps merely hoped-for) resurgence in blogging this year.

I certainly find this a useful contribution in explaining the value of blogging. It must not be run through the traditional communcations department wringer. The whole point of blogging is that is by real people (not comms people), talking about their real experiences and even their mistakes.

If you only talk blandly about your successes, you’re not really talking.

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Twitter gets message order wrong

Twitter gets message order wrong

Philip Hunt on how bad Twitter’s user interface has become.

When Twitter started out, it was such a simple concept. Just straightforward status updates; no real interaction. (When I joined Twitter, @ replies didn’t even exist yet.)

Over time it has added more and more features — replies, retweets, quote retweets, threads. Seemingly it has not been thought through properly.

If you spend a lot of time on Twitter, you catch onto these user interface quirks pretty quickly. But new users must find it so intimidating. So it is little wonder Twitter struggles to attract and retain new users.

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The secret cost of research

The secret cost of research

A belter of an article on why it is difficult to persuade people to undertake user research:

Research is simply asking questions about how the world works. And asking questions about how the world works threatens established authority.

I especially love the section “Bad research is good theatre”:

Focus groups look like how people imagine research looks. In a special room, controlled. But just because you have a 2-way mirror doesn’t make it anything more than a tea party. Actual ethnographic research happens where the people you’re studying do the thing you want to learn about. It’s often unsatisfyingly messy and low tech.

Fake research makes people money, and it makes people in charge feel good, but it’s useless and potentially dangerous to a design project.

So how do you get decision-makers to see the light? Understand them as people, like a good UXer should!

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Unsexy fundamentals focus: User experiences that print money

Unsexy fundamentals focus: User experiences that print money

An extraordinary example of someone trying to give a publisher a lot of money — and the publisher making that experience as difficult as possible.

I’ve said before that I don’t have much sympathy for most publishers who are struggling. This is one example of exactly why many of their struggles are largely their own fault.

It beggars belief that a publisher should make it so hard to buy their product online. Many of them have a long hill to climb.

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Underscores, optimisation and arms races

Underscores, optimisation and arms races

The story of how one character — the underscore (_) — provided an early glimpse of the problems we now face with dominant tech firms exerting their power over the web.

We found ourselves resistant to what felt like a coercive effect of Google’s rising domination, especially since Google’s own Blogger platform was a competitor of ours. Our expression of that frustration was expressed by a debate over a single character: We were using _ because we thought it looked nicer, so why should we change to – just because Google liked it better? Weren’t they supposed to adapt to what we published on the web?

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Note — 2018-03-17

It’s great to see this clip of Henry Hope-Frost on You Bet.

He may have thought then that his obscure knowledge would be of absolutely no use. But it certainly came in handy when he later became one of the top motorsport journalists.

There aren’t nearly enough clips of You Bet on YouTube. I remember one contestant who was able to tell a piece of music that was being played backwards just by seeing a candle flickering in front of the speaker.

It’s extraordinary to think that this kind of geeky talent passed for Saturday night ITV entertainment in the 1990s.

Henry Hope-Frost’s untimely death traveling home from the job he loved earlier this month was tragic. This clip is a demonstration of pure fever.

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The tools matter and the tools don’t matter

The tools matter and the tools don’t matter

It is easy to sneer at a question about what brand of pen to use, or whether you should use a pencil or a typewriter.

But in this piece, Austin Kleon argues that different tools can help you “get you to a certain way of working in which you can get your conscious, mechanical mind out of the way” to enable creativity.

…handwriting is great for coming up with ideas, for note-taking and big picture thinking…

Typing, on the other hand, is great for producing writing for other people… There’s a thing called “transcription fluency,” which boils down to: “when your fingers can’t move as fast as your thoughts, your ideas suffer.”

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1/1 — Brian Eno

Ambient 1 / Music for Airports is 40 years old this month.

1/1 artwork

It is spurious to claim that Brian Eno invented ambient music. Erik Satie’s furniture music deserves mention. Eno himself recognised the role of Muzak.

Music for Airports is not even Eno’s first ambient album, despite its Ambient 1 moniker. But it certainly is the most important.

Music for Airports is both experimental and timeless. Bold yet gentle. You can consciously listen to it. But it may also affect your mood without you consciously being aware of it. Or in the words of Eno, “it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”

It was a genuinely new idea. It introduced the notion of designing music for a specific purpose, yet was still packaged as a pop album. A stunning concept.

But how would we feel if music like this was played in an airport? Would it be a calming influence? Or would it grate like Muzak?

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Liminal thinking

Liminal thinking

A powerful explanation of how beliefs are formed, and what little resemblance they have to reality.

Your beliefs form the fundamental model that you use to navigate the world, to think about things, to decide what to do and what to avoid, like a map. We form a lot of these beliefs by middle childhood.

And since you’re the one who built the map, it’s natural to believe that it corresponds to the territory that you are navigating. After all, most of the time, your map gets you where you want to go. So much so that when the map doesn’t get you where you want to go, the first thing you question is not the map but reality.

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Bertrand Russell’s chicken (and why it was not an economist)

Bertrand Russell’s chicken (and why it was not an economist)

How introspection can lead to greater understanding — and how it may not.

The chicken that is fed by the farmer each morning may well have a theory that it will always be fed each morning – it becomes a ‘law’. And it works every day, until the day the chicken is instead slaughtered.

…Economics is at a disadvantage compared to the physical sciences because we cannot do so many types of experiments (although we are doing more and more), but we have another source of evidence: introspection… why is the farmer doing this? What is in it for him? If I was the farmer, why would I do this? And of course trying to answer that question might have led them to the unfortunate truth.

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Of software designers and broken combs

Of software designers and broken combs

An interesting way of thinking about skills development that I hadn’t heard of before. Conventional wisdom suggests aiming for a T shaped distribution of skills — (the horizontal bar representing shallow skills across many disciplines; the vertical bar representing deep understanding of one discipline).

The broken comb model suggests developing a moderately deep understanding across many disciplines.

With certain exceptions, organizations with many T-shaped people may have difficulty keeping all of those T-shaped people busy. If the base of my T is icon design, but there are no icons available to design, I am either stuck twiddling my thumbs, or doing something I’m much less good at.

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Escaping Twitter’s self-consciousness machine

Escaping Twitter’s self-consciousness machine

On how the experience of using Twitter is transformed by removing all metrics from the interface.

The article makes a good point about why platforms like Twitter place so much emphasis on numbers:

The type of person who tends to be a high-level coder at a top tech firm… usually got great grades, attended a premier university, and now competes for bragging rights by trying to log the longest hours of anyone at the office. These people thrive in numbers-focussed environments. Perhaps it’s predestined that their world view would infect the user interfaces they create.

It is tempting to think our obsession with metrics is part of human nature. But is it just a trait of a particular type of person?

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Note — 2018-03-12

There are certain things you’re not allowed to say these days. Well it is time to put an end to all this political correctness. People have been frightened to speak openly. We should call a spade a spade.

Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable is telling it like it is:

70% of over 65s voted for Brexit.

Too many were driven by a nostalgia for a world where passports were blue, faces were white, and the map was coloured imperial pink.

He is only saying what we’re all thinking.

Update: I see some snowflakes are upset about it.

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Design’s lost generation

Design’s lost generation

As usual with Mike Monteiro, I don’t agree with everything he says (or the way he says it). But this is a seriously thought-provoking article on the failure of a generation of designers.

I am part of design’s last generation. I’ve fucked up. We all have. None of us did enough. Maybe the tide was too strong, or maybe we were too weak. But as I look behind me I see the hope of a new generation. They’re asking better questions, at a younger age, than we ever did. And I truly hope they do better than us because the stakes have never been higher.

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Retracing the Birmingham Superprix

Birmingham Superprix

Retracing the Birmingham Superprix

Looking back on the street race that ran in Britain’s second largest city for a few years in the 1980s. It is almost unimaginable today, and going by the weary comments from the business owner whose building was used as the pitlane, you can see why it didn’t last.

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Reclaiming my blog as my thought space

Reclaiming my blog as my thought space

Dries Buytaert on reclaiming his blog. It’s just the latest of many blog posts I have read recently from people keen to share more personal content on their own websites.

My blog is primarily read by technology professionals — from Drupal users and developers, to industry analysts and technology leaders — and in my mind, they do not read my blog to learn about a wider range of topics. I’m conflicted because I would like my l blog to reflect both my personal and professional interests.

This is a struggle I well recognise. When Twitter was born, those more personal snippets moved to social media. Bloggers felt the need to become more professional and write more polished, fully-fleshed articles.

But Twitter (and other social media services) no longer fill that gap the way they used to. The most viable answer is to go back to the good old days of more personal blogging.

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My original iPod is a time capsule from 2002

My original iPod is a time capsule from 2002

What happened when one person started up his iPod for the first time in 15 years.

…I also came across music and artists which made me wonder what on earth I was thinking of when I loaded their tracks into iTunes. If I could talk to my 2002 self, I would sit him down and explain that Limp Bizkit’s album Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water is an abomination and not at all funny (my London music buddies and I thought it was hilarious at the time)…

…looking back through the playlists on my first and oldest iPod I was struck by the fact that some of the music from 2001 and 2002 seemed far more dated than some of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.

I certainly have a memory of music from 2001/2002. In fact, because of my age, it is precisely when a lot of my favourite music was released. But I do wonder what I would discover if I found my iTunes library from that period, warts and all?

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How liberals amped up a Parkland shooting conspiracy theory

How liberals amped up a Parkland shooting conspiracy theory

Conspiracy theorists purported that young anti-gun activists are crisis actors. It turns out that those outraged about the theory did more to promote it that the theorists themselves.

Frank Luntz… tweeted in protest of the Gateway Pundit story, becoming one of four non-right-wing amplifiers of the story with verified accounts… The other three are the New York Times’ Nick Confessore, MSNBC producer Kyle Griffin, and former first daughter Chelsea Clinton. Each of them quote-tweeted the Gateway Pundit story to denounce it, but in doing so gave it more amplification.

This is what I meant when I said don’t feed the trolls.

There is a class of professional conversationalists who have realised how this works and have taken advantage. These people express outrageous and offensive opinions specifically because it is a super-efficient way for them to get the publicity they need.

A dangerous man became US president because he understood this, and millions of his opponents didn’t.

The next time someone says controversial, ask yourself why, rise above it, deny them the publicity and move on.

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The 9 rules of design research

The 9 rules of design research

One of the hardest things about design or user research is convincing people that it actually needs to take place. That is especially maddening when working for an research organisation.

(Researchers themselves are sometimes the most reluctant to undertake user research before spending serious amounts of money on ineffective websites.)

So this snippet, among a series of useful rules of thumb, made me cheer. 🙌

If you’ve ever worked with a leader who was resistant to doing qualitative research as part of a million dollar project, ask yourself whether they would skip doing their own research before buying a $50,000 car.

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A few notes on daily blogging

A few notes on daily blogging

A striking article, partly because I find it slightly eerie that the author chose to start blogging daily on 1 October, the same day I started blogging again.

I haven’t quite managed to blog on a daily basis. Although I do publish something at least once a day, I tend to write multiple posts at a time and schedule them for future publication.

(As an example, I’m writing this on Wednesday 28 February, in the expectation that I will publish it on Tuesday 6 March.)

As a result, I’m not sure I have benefited yet from resuming my regular blogging. Perhaps I will endeavour to carve out some time each day to write something.

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