Archive — August 2018

Designing Google Maps for motorbikes

Designing Google Maps for motorbikes

Some nice work from Google Maps on how they immersed themselves in their users’ world to understand how to improve Google Maps for motorbike users in places like Delhi and Jakarta.

The research team included engineers, UX designers, product managers, and marketing leads, all from different parts of the world. We met with two-wheeler drivers from Jaipur, Delhi, Bangalore, and Jakarta, in environments from bustling transportation hubs to kitchen tables in people’s homes. Our intention was to understand and relate to people in a way that felt authentic — we wanted to learn through immersion.

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A spectre is haunting Unicode

A spectre is haunting Unicode

Some meaningless Japanese characters (known as ghost characters) have been included in Unicode — and no-one knows why. Although there are some pretty good theories.

[S]everal of the added characters had no obvious sources, and nobody could tell what they meant or how they should be pronounced. Nobody was sure where they came from. These are what came to be known as the ghost characters (幽霊文字).

See also: Big tech warns of ‘Japan’s millennium bug’ ahead of Akihito’s abdication.

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Are we designers shamelessly good at self promotion?

Are we designers shamelessly good at self promotion?

An analysis of content about design — why people write it, how they look for it, and why it needs to be better.

Last year, we published and shared 4,302 articles and links with the community …

That’s a lot of links.

Most of them 5-minute Medium articles.

Not as thorough as we would like them to be.

Not deep at all.

Not as honest as our industry deserves.

This makes me wonder if my own approach — blogging daily with a link to and short remark about a 5 minute read — is wrong.

We definitely need to find more ways to write and think more deeply about design, and spend less time with superficial, self-promotional clickbait.

More on this from Khoi Vinh: Why designers don’t want to think when they read.

See also: Platforms, agile, trust, teams and werewolves — on why we need to see more stories about failure.

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Autechre on their epic NTS Sessions, David Lynch, and where code meets music

Autechre on their epic NTS Sessions, David Lynch, and where code meets music

A good interview with Autechre in which they reveal a little more about their techniques. It explains a fair bit about why their sound is so unique, and why other people can’t (or shouldn’t) emulate it.

It gets a bit hazy in terms of what’s a musical idea and what’s a piece of technology. If you make a sequencer that only makes one type of sequence, and you’ve used it twice, then I guess you’ve used the same musical idea twice…

Our system is great for making Autechre tracks, but I’m not sure if everybody else wants to do that. And if they do, I’m not sure I want them to.

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Photo — 2018-08-27

Epic drive-through beer shop near Spa!

It’s called Drive-In Andrien, and it’s one of the most surreal places I’ve been to. You drive in through a garage door, and you’re basically in the Costco of Belgian beer. Many beers were purchased, and our wallets are not that much lighter…

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Keeping digital teams happy versus keeping customers happy

Keeping digital teams happy versus keeping customers happy

Gerry McGovern tells the story of trying to persuade a digital team of what they needed to fix.

“It would be nice to fix these problems,” one person said. “But the team needs also to be able to do exciting things. We need to be able to innovate.”

Unfortunately, people at work often place too much emphasis on their own enjoyment. But our work only has meaning if it is providing value to someone.

Work shouldn’t be exciting. There’s a job to do.

See also:

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“Stay on this! Stay. On. This.” — The split second decisions behind Formula 1’s television direction

“Stay on this! Stay. On. This.” — The split second decisions behind Formula 1’s television direction

One for the geeks. Formula 1 have released a fascinating video of the moment Sebastian Vettel crashed out of the German Grand Prix, including talkback from the FOM production team responsible for the main TV world feed.

This is a brilliant insight into the amount of work and split-second decision making that goes behind telling the story of a complex race while dramatic events are unfolding live. I generally admire the high quality standard of the FOM world feed. But this video shows that there is a even more going on behind the scenes than I imagined.

It is particularly interesting to see how aware the team are of relatively minor incidents like Carlos Sainz changing to intermediate tyres, but they opt not to reflect this on the broadcast for fear of distracting from the bigger picture: “This is the story.”

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How to set up a website: a guide for the alt-right

How to set up a website: a guide for the alt-right

Are you a fascist? Have you been throwing your toys out the pram because some digital platforms have finally grown a pair and removed you? If so, Bruce Lawson has some advice for you on how the open web works.

Of course, it’s perfectly possible no-one will visit your website to read how Bin Laden faked the moon landings in order to draw attention from the fact that Marilyn Monroe was a CIA-funded muslim who invented income tax and fluoridated water in order to seize your guns and pollute your precious bodily fluids. But that’s freedom.

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Proactive UX design: A big leap requiring baby steps

Proactive UX design: A big leap requiring baby steps

An excellent article from Jared Spool on the difference between proactive design and reactive design — and the importance of making your work more proactive.

Reactive UX design is just what it sounds like: reacting to a problem in the moment. “Oh, can you fix this?” “Help! Users are complaining this is too hard! What can we do?”

Without also having proactive UX design efforts, the design team is only fixing problems caused by decisions the product team has already made.

Interestingly, he also makes the point that it is easy for design teams to get sucked into doing reactive design, because it becomes comfortable for teams to do:

They like the wireframes and usability tests.

They believe this is what design work looks like. They believe design work always happens at the end of the process.

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Glasgow’s urban decay risks squandering 30 years of progress

Glasgow’s urban decay risks squandering 30 years of progress

More on the decline of Glasgow — and the lack of any action plan to reverse it.

Go west along the river and you’ll see a hotchpotch of development, wasteland and missed opportunity that literally only takes you so far – Glasgow must be one of the few cities in Europe where it’s not possible to walk or cycle right along the banks.

The urban realm of Glasgow is deteriorating through fire, desertion and neglect in a quite ghastly way, and what is most alarming is the seeming lack of a strategic plan to reverse it.

See also: What next for Sauchiehall Street?

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The danger of listening to people who talk a lot

The danger of listening to people who talk a lot

Those who talk well and talk lots can command attention in meetings – and they get an unprecedented amount of airtime in modern organisations.

Whilst extroverts put it all out there for the world to see, introverts often keep their best ideas inside. If you’re ignoring them, you’re at risk of missing the problem and the solution.

As Paul Taylor says here, it is more important to widen and deepen connections with everyone. We need to prioritise ways of doing this, and preventing hippos and loud voices getting their way each time.

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Testing the sound mirrors that protected Britain

Testing the sound mirrors that protected Britain

I very rarely link to (or even watch) a video. But I am happy to make an exception for Tom Scott’s excellent entertaining and educational videos.

Here, he tests concrete sound mirrors with drones. I’m fascinated by sound mirrors — an early 20th century technology designed to provide early warning of approaching aircraft, which became obsolete quickly as aircraft speeds increased, and radar took over.

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Big tech warns of ‘Japan’s millennium bug’ ahead of Akihito’s abdication

Big tech warns of ‘Japan’s millennium bug’ ahead of Akihito’s abdication

To be filed under ‘you learn something new every day’ — a series of potential millennium bug-style issues that could be faced when Emperor Akihito of Japan abdicates. Japanese calendars effectively begin from zero with a new era every time there is a new emperor.

Akihito has been on the throne for almost the entirety of the information age, meaning that many systems have never had to deal with a switchover in era.

Moreover, Unicode will have to create a new character to represent the new era — which has not yet been named. This clashes awkwardly with the planned release of Unicode 12.0.

But this is the most incredible scenario:

Many older computers, with aspects dating back to before the end of the Shōwa era in 1989, have never been updated to reflect the new era, and still think the year is Shōwa 93. That means Japan could face another mini Y2K problem in 2025, as those systems attempt to tick over to a three digit Shōwa year they can’t cope with.

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Everything bad about Facebook is bad for the same reason

Everything bad about Facebook is bad for the same reason

How Facebook’s focus on the connections between users, rather than the humans who use it, is its core problem.

Underlying all of Facebook’s screw-ups is a bumbling obliviousness to real humans. The company’s singular focus on “connecting people” has allowed it to conquer the world, making possible the creation of a vast network of human relationships, a source of insights and eyeballs that makes advertisers and investors drool.

But the imperative to “connect people” lacks the one ingredient essential for being a good citizen: Treating individual human beings as sacrosanct. To Facebook, the world is not made up of individuals, but of connections between them. The billions of Facebook accounts belong not to “people” but to “users,” collections of data points connected to other collections of data points on a vast Social Network, to be targeted and monetized by computer programs.

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Economists have lost the trust of politicians

Economists have lost the trust of politicians

It’s always good to read/see/hear Stephanie Flanders. Here she asks why politicians no longer have a favourite economist, in the way that Margaret Thatcher liked Milton Friedman and John F Kennedy admired John Kenneth Galbraith.

In one sense, this feels like a concern I have been reading about for a decade or two. But it also feels like an extension of the more recent phenomenon of refusing to listen to experts.

Nevertheless, there are some real questions for economics to answer. Why does it not have the influence today that it enjoyed in previous decades?

We’re also hearing mainstream economists talk more loudly about the possibility of shifting the balance back toward labor with wealth taxes and reduced taxes on earned income. That’s a big shift for a profession that seemed to think until recently that reducing the tax on capital was always and everywhere a good thing. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for an elected politician to decide that any of this advice is worth listening to.

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Friday furnace

Friday furnace

This is exactly why it’s worth investing the effort to own your content.

Medium owner/operator Ev Williams is Mark Zuckerberg. You remember when Facebook enticed publishers to pivot to video for Facebook and then killed news/opinion video on Facebook? Medium has pivoted something like five times, and each time it’s severely injured a whole tranche of publishers and writers who it invited in.

I really don’t understand why companies and professional media organisations are using Medium at all.

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Sin taxes are less efficient than they look

Sin taxes are less efficient than they look

Very interesting piece on the pros and cons of sin taxes (taxes on things like tobacco, alcohol).

Implied, but not quite explicitly mentioned here, is the fact that because such items tend to have low price elasticity of demand (in other words, price rises don’t change consumption habits all that much) — because they are usually addictive. As such, they are excellent revenue generators for governments.

This is an issue that’s well worth being on top of, as such taxes increasingly cover new things — like sugar and plastic bags.

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“Google was not a normal place”: Brin, Page, and Mayer on the accidental birth of the company that changed everything

“Google was not a normal place”: Brin, Page, and Mayer on the accidental birth of the company that changed everything

Fascinating article about the early days of Google. One eye-popping section recalls how they originally tried to sell their technology to other search engines, only to be knocked back.

I remember going to this one meeting at Excite, with George Bell, the C.E.O. He selects Excite and he types “Internet,” and then it pops up a page on the Excite side, and pretty much all of the results are in Chinese, and then on the Google side it basically had stuff all about N.S.C.A. Mosaic and a bunch of other pretty reasonable things. George Bell, he’s really upset about this, and it was funny, because he got very defensive. He was like, “We don’t want your search engine. We don’t want to make it easy for people to find stuff, because we want people to stay on our site.” It’s crazy, of course, but back then that was definitely the idea: keep people on your site, don’t let them leave. And I remember driving away afterward, and Larry and I were talking: “Users come to your Web site? To search? And you don’t want to be the best damn search engine there is? That’s insane! That’s a dead company, right?”

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Why content should be published in HTML and not PDF

Why Gov.uk content should be published in HTML and not PDF

How to give up PDFs and improve your higher education website’s user experience

The crusade against PDFs has been one of my constant hobby-horses over the years. It has also led to some of my toughest battles in my work.

Users hate PDFs, because it makes it harder to use content. But content owners love PDFs, because it makes it easier for them to create content. It is the ultimate in user-hostility. “Who cares about the users? PDFs make my job easier for me.”

So it was great to see two trusted sources reiterate the importance of getting rid of PDFs, within days of each other.

This has also reminded me of a small project I promised I would do, but never got around to — to publish my dissertation as an HTML webpage. The idea was to demonstrate how versatile HTML is, even for things like technical or academic writing. Maybe I’ll return to that this autumn.

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How a Google Maps update lead to the promotion of fringe views

How a Google Maps update lead to the promotion of fringe views

Google Maps made a small tweak to its interface so that the fully zoomed-out view displayed as a globe, rather than the Mercator projection it use before.

Peter Gasston noticed that the angle many news publications found was to cover the reaction from flat Earthers.

This gave ad-funded publishers their opportunity to get some attention money: a simple product update isn’t a story, but a manufactured controversy is…

The result is that a manufactured controversy about a minor product update has given false equivalency to the fringe views of a small band of crackpots so everyone can get a few pennies in advertising revenue. This is the attention economy in action, and it’s rotten.

Remember that repeating a lie — even while you make clear that it’s a lie — makes people more likely to believe it’s true.

This is how the media works these days. And it explains a lot about what’s going on in the world right now.

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Scientists have revived worms that had been frozen for 42,000 years

Scientists have revived worms that had been frozen for 42,000 years

The worms, known as nematodes or more commonly as roundworms, had been frozen for up to 42,000 years, since a time when much of the planet was covered in ice.

But they weren’t dead — just cryogenically preserved.

The researchers brought the worms back to a lab, where they slowly thawed them over several weeks.

  1. This is cool.
  2. We’re all going to die!
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Consume less, create more

Consume less, create more

We first consume and then think if we really needed it… Have we not seen people who are constantly busy on their phones consuming stuff without moving a needle for anyone? We need to jump off the consumption treadmill.

The goal, then, is to consume mindfully…

This is part of the reason why I have committed to writing about a link each day. It gives me direction and focus for what I consume, and I find myself wasting less time on pointless content. (Goodbye Instagram, I miss you far less than I expected.)

As a result, I’m learning more, thinking more, and feeling sharper.

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What happens when you let computers optimise floorplans

Evolving floorplans

The rooms and expected flow of people are given to a genetic algorithm which attempts to optimize the layout to minimize walking time, the use of hallways, etc. The creative goal is to approach floor plan design solely from the perspective of optimization and without regard for convention, constructability, etc.

I’m not sure this would work in real life. But it’s a fascinating idea, and the floorplans are certainly interesting to look at.

Via Boing Boing.

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Note — 2018-08-08

Scotsman screenshot

It’s no wonder newspaper websites are in trouble. Their latest scheme is to “lock” content by turning it into squiggles unless you watch at least 6 seconds of an advert. Needless to say, this is a horrible experience, and only makes it all the more likely that I’ll turn away from certain websites.

I’m afraid to say that I know I’m going to have a dreadful time any time I try to read anything on the Scotsman or any other Johnston Press website. Every time, I am bombarded with a cacophony of offensive adverts, which grind my computer to a halt. And when they deign to show me the content I came for, more often than not it’s badly written, and clearly a rush-job by a stressed-out writer being made to churn out any old crap in the name of volume.

Why would I bother following a link to the Scotsman website again?

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Why is Radio 4’s Today programme losing so many listeners?

Why is Radio 4’s Today programme losing so many listeners?

The Today programme has lost 800,000 listeners in the past year. That’s about a tenth of its audience, gone.

I listen to the Today programme, but I want to stop. It is unmistakably weak at the moment. Sometimes it’s for reasons you can’t quite put your finger on. It just sounds uncomfortable and clumsy at the moment. Many recent features have felt contrived and uninteresting, almost like dad dancing. Certain presenters need to be put out to pasture (and Sarah Montague wasn’t one of them).

Then of course there are the manufactured polarised debates. These have always been a staple of the Today programme, and even the publicity shot in this Radio Times piece depicts the presenters having a debate at the breakfast table, complete with finger-pointing, as if that’s a selling point. In today’s highly charged political atmosphere, it is frankly the last thing we need more of.

All this means that I have found myself switching off the radio in disgust quite a lot recently.

I haven’t yet switched off completely — but only because I can’t think of what an alternative morning listen might be. Any suggestions?

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Readability guidelines

Readability guidelines

I really like this idea of crowdsourcing, and making available to the community, a set of readability guidelines based on evidence.

I see many content designers spending time talking – arguing – about points of style when often accessibility and usability show what we should do.

What if there was one place where we, as a community, shared knowledge and created a style guide that was accessible, usable and – if we wanted – evidenced?

We could then spend time on the things that matter more to our organisations.

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The shoey: Why it’s a bad idea to copy Daniel Ricciardo’s F1 podium ritual

The shoey: Why it’s a bad idea to copy Daniel Ricciardo’s F1 podium ritual)

Finally, someone has done the science on the shoey, the ritual whereby Daniel Ricciardo drinks champagne out of his sweaty shoe after winning a grand prix. It’s about as bad as you might expect.

The positive — and possibly surprising — revelation was that in most instances the alcohol kills much of the bacteria present.

In fact, the only drink that failed to do so was sparkling white wine or champagne. Not only did the fizzy stuff fail to act as a disinfectant, but it encouraged the growth of more bacteria — and we’re not talking the friendly kind.

Food (or drink) for thought when champagne is the go-to tipple for Ricciardo when he celebrates a F1 podium finish.

Via WTF1.

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Photo — 2018-08-04

Five Telegrams on the Usher Hall

Five Telegrams, Edinburgh International Festival 2018 opening event, by Anna Meredith and 59 Productions.

One of Edinburgh’s busiest roads was closed last night for this musical and visual work projected onto the Usher Hall. The sort of event that makes me really proud to live in Edinburgh.

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From catfishing to unregistered religious marriages: finding news stories hidden In Plain Sight

From catfishing to unregistered religious marriages: finding news stories hidden In Plain Sight

This looks like a great initiative being driven by some journalists in the BBC.

It was in a conversation following the Grenfell Tower disaster, instigated by our former Director of News, James Harding, which brought about the In Plain Sight project.

In Plain Sight set out to get to those stories and tell them in a way that resonates with younger and more diverse audiences.

To do that, we’re not creating a new programme, platform or launching another BBC brand. We’re simply making sure sure that younger, more diverse members of staff are given a platform to pitch stories and then are producing and reporting those stories themselves across existing BBC outlets.

We have been running manager-free sessions, where we invite along staff from across the BBC to come and pitch ideas.

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The sound of silence: What we’re not saying about Siri and her AI gal pals

The sound of silence: What we’re not saying about Siri and her AI gal pals

Why are digital assistants almost always given female-sounding voices?

While stakeholder preference might sound like a perfectly good reason at first, it hides an ugly reality. To make this clear, let me tell you a story about a talented young woman who I managed. She designed voice features for our clients’ prototypes. Although she created a voice that was meant to be genderless, the client kept referring to the voice in feminine terms. In other words, he heard what he expected to hear.

…BMW learned the hard way that female voices aren’t always the right route to take when German drivers of its 5 Series vehicles complained about “taking directions from a woman.” Yes, really.

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What Pérez’s shock decision tells us about Force India’s uncertain future

What Perez’s shock decision tells us about Force India’s uncertain future

The current turbulence surrounding Force India F1 Team is possibly the most extraordinary Formula 1 story in over 20 years since I began following the sport. The fact that a driver, Sergio Pérez, has played a pivotal role in his own team going into administration was scarcely believable when the news emerged last Friday. As this story by Dieter Rencken outlines, the plot is thicker still.

I greatly admire the Force India team. When I was a child I was a huge fan of Jordan, from which Force India is descended via various owners. And they have consistently demonstrated that they are the team able to deliver the most on the scarcest of resources.

As Dieter Rencken’s article notes, the odds are more stacked against them than ever. The fact that they have finished 4th in the constructors’ championship for the past two seasons is an awesome achievement. And the fact that such a successful team finds itself in such financial trouble is a damning statement on how unjust F1’s current payment structure is.

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Platforms, agile, trust, teams and werewolves

Platforms, agile, trust, teams and werewolves

Sometimes you go to conferences or meetups and they feel like a bit of a chore. You end up listening to a lot of PR spin from people who only want to share the best good news they’ve got. They’re usually under pressure to show their best side, and to sell their own success. We get why that happens, but it can be a dull experience if you’re in the audience.

This point from Giles Turnbull at Public Digital chimes with something that has been on my mind a bit recently.

People often talk about “failing fast” or being “unafraid to fail”. But those same people are often suspiciously unwilling to speak about their failures.

In a way that is understandable. But it would be good to hear more people genuinely opening up about the things that have gone wrong. Don’t just constantly trumpet the things that are going great (or the things that aren’t going great, but you say they are). If it’s true that you learn from failure, help others by sharing that — as well as your success stories.

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