I realised that while the summer got pretty busy for us, there are a few work blog posts that I haven’t cross-posted here yet. So I will drip-feed them here over the next little while.
This first one is from July, where I outlined some of the lessons we have been learning from getting collaborative activities done remotely. This post also highlights some of the work my colleagues have been doing to continue our user experience work despite the challenges presented by the coronavirus outbreak.
This was a follow-up to an earlier blog post, Meeting the challenges of conducting user research remotely.
The rumours were true — Changing Rooms is coming back, 20 years on from its heyday. I don’t really remember watching it very much, but I have been struck by how much people have been talking about it recently.
The TV show clearly struck a chord. And why not, when you can reminisce about stories like the prized £6,000 teapot collection that was destroyed by one of the programme’s ludicrous interior design ideas?
What I love about this story is the stiff upper lip displayed by the victim of this design disaster, which is really a paper-thin disguise for seething anger that brings out a gem of a quote like this:
“I still feel that she’s got what she deserved, which is really being dropped by everybody,” Clodagh says of Linda Barker [the interior designer]. “I still don’t feel very good about her. On the very rare occasion she’s on television now, when I do see her, she’s still very bouncy, and I just don’t think she earned the bounce,” she laughs.
So. Much. Shade.
Tomatoes are a bit of an ontological mess.
Why information architecture is difficult, explained by tomatoes — and not just the fruit/vegetable thing you might already be thinking.
Note — 2020-09-23
A highly entertaining read about how someone used a photo of a boarding pass posted by Tony Abbott on his own Instagram account to find out the former Australian prime minister’s personal details including his passport and phone number. Alex Hope embarks on an adventure to find out whether he broke the law, figure out how he can inform Tony Abbott that he knows his passport number, and let the airline know about their hair-raisingly bad information security.
Photo — 2020-09-13
Alex and I are expecting a baby!
Arriving December 2020.
It’s probably a bit inaccurate to describe Simeon Coxe as a synth pioneer. A pioneer he was, but his musical inventions predated the widespread use of synthesisers. They in fact involved a set-up known as the simeon machine, consisting of “more than a dozen” oscillators.
When he introduced the first oscillator to the rock band he was part of in 1967, all three guitarists quit, leaving just him and the drummer, Dan Taylor. The result was a new band — Silver Apples, a prototypical electronic band, but with a rock sensibility secured by the equally experimental drumming.
They predated Kraftwerk, and their music lacks the polish that developed in electronic music over the subsequent decades. The primitive but complex set-up produced an abrasive and raw, yet repetitive and hypnotic sound.
Perhaps Silver Apples were the first post-rock band. Maybe they were even the first electronic pop music band. Their first two albums even predate 1969’s An Electric Storm by White Noise, which enlisted the help of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson to help realise David Vorhaus’s futuristic electronic vision of pop.
Like White Noise, Silver Apples were met with limited commercial success in their time, only to be discovered as cult favourites decades down the line. The public just had to get used to the idea of electronic music.
Formula 1 prepares to hold its first event of 2020 after the Australian Grand Prix had to be suddenly cancelled March, after everyone had arrived down under.
Now the first event takes place in Austria. A little easier to travel to. But the global nature of the sport — with personnel floating through Europe to congregate — seems particularly problematic.
Channel 4’s commentator Ben Edwards will be broadcasting this weekend from Silverstone, not Austria. But he thinks motorsport is more ideally suited to dealing with coronavirus than you might think.
At a circuit, awareness of gaps is crucial; a racing driver needs instantly to assess whether there is room to pass a piece of debris on the tarmac while marshals are constantly checking gaps between leaders and backmarkers to decide on blue flags, or positioning cars accurately in tightly formed assembly areas.
We are accustomed to checking distances, and unlike so many of the customers in supermarkets who appear to be oblivious to the rules that have been imposed, in my opinion the motorsport scene is naturally geared up for it and will cope accordingly.
I hope he’s right and there isn’t a situation like the one tennis has found itself in.
In the middle of this conversation between Jarvis Cocker and Jeanie Finlay, I really enjoyed this description of how it feels to crowdsurf:
The feeling is amazing actually because you just give yourself over to it, you lie there and the audience are supporting you and you’re really just trusting them to not just let you fall on the ground. I kind of just laid there for a bit looking at the roof of the tent we were in, travelling out into the audience. And then it suddenly occurred to me that I couldn’t stay there too long because the rest of the band would get bored. And then, it was really magical because I just raised my head a little bit and looked towards the stage and as I did that it was like they just knew and I got transported right back to the crowd barrier again.
A very interesting-sounding study has analysed English language football commentary from seven broadcasters and 80 live matches.
RunRepeat ratio-adjusted its numbers to account for the fact there were 1,361 comments about lighter-skinned players and 713 about darker-skinned players and found the former group more widely praised for intelligence (62.60%), hard work (60.40%) and quality (62.79%). Commentators are also 6.59 times more likely to talk about the power of a player if he has darker skin and 3.38 times more likely to reference his pace.
The study also found that 63.33% of criticism from commentators in regards to the intelligence of a player is aimed at those with darker skin, while the figure for quality is 67.57%.
Photo — 2020-06-27
It’s a Tactical Nuclear Penguin kind of evening.
Keep an eye on this impressive blog. Join Helen Wiles and explore the world of user experience.
This blog is quite new, but already there are brilliant articles on topics like:
- Recruiting a representative sample of participants
- Conducting remote usability testing
- The difference between empathy and sympathy
They are all written in a very accessible and creative way, making it an enjoyable read.
One thing I have noticed from working in UX is that the concept of user experience itself isn’t exactly the most usable… as most people don’t even know what it is! So, I’m trying to create a space where I can give useful advice and tell stories that help to make it more accessible for everyone, as I think it’s so important.
The Flaming Lips demonstrating how to perform live in a socially distanced fashion, while somehow being the most on-brand they have ever been.
How a white woman discovered what it’s like to constantly be spuriously pulled over by the police, because she had a black dog.
One day, sitting at a restaurant having breakfast with my Dad; our old neighbor came in and said, “There’s a black man stealing your van. He’s behind the wheel right now.” I paused a minute and realized he was referring to Merlin. Bells went off.
My colleague Stewart Lamb Cromar has written about how a recent deterioration in his vision has impacted his work, and highlights the importance of our ongoing work around accessibility.
A fun analysis of the world’s banknotes, their colours and contents: who and what features on them, and where.
How about this for dystopia? MSN have replaced human news editors with a robot powered by Microsoft artificial intelligence technology. The problem is, it has already begun making racist decisions.
And then, in case you thought the story wasn’t already absurd enough, this:
In advance of the publication of this article, staff at MSN were told to expect a negative article in the Guardian about alleged racist bias in the artificial intelligence software that will soon take their jobs.
Because they are unable to stop the new robot editor selecting stories from external news sites such as the Guardian, the remaining human staff have been told to stay alert and delete a version of this article if the robot decides it is of interest and automatically publishes it on MSN.com. They have also been warned that even if they delete it, the robot editor may overrule them and attempt to publish it again.
Then the article ends on a delicious snippet — that Microsoft itself is concerned about the reputational damage this scheme will cause to its AI technology.
I’m immediately reminded of Microsoft’s disastrous Tay experiment.
Photo — 2020-06-07
A write-up of a brilliant talk Jo Arthur gave at this month’s UX Glasgow event, where she outlined how the National Lottery Heritage Fund analyse user research remotely. I found it super useful, not least because this is exactly what we need to do at my work right now, and I have taken a lot of inspiration from this. Thanks Jo!
In the short history of esport racing being so heavily under the spotlight while there is no real-life motorsport going on, there have already been a fair few controversies.
Yet the revelation that Daniel Abt had got a professional esport racer, Lorenz Hoerzing, to compete on his behalf in the Formula E Race at Home Challenge (a charity event raising funds for Unicef) has quickly topped the list.
This deception has cost Daniel Abt his job as an Audi Formula E driver in the real world. The fact that he has been sacked is especially extraordinary because his family’s company is heavily involved in the running of the team.
Daniel Abt himself has been outspoken on the topic of cheating in Formula E before. He once described fanboost voting patterns as suspicious, suggesting that robots were being hired to give certain drivers more votes in the fanboost poll. That comment in itself seemed suspicious to me, given that he had actually won the fanboost quite a lot around that time.
A beautiful set of diagrams documenting the designs of parliamentary halls from across the world.
Photo — 2020-05-18
A delightfully geeky breakdown of how a London bus stop is designed and built. It got me thinking of design systems.
This is more than a month old. In terms of the coronavirus outbreak, that’s an eternity. But I still found this list of possible future scenarios interesting and thought-provoking.
It also comes with the major caveat that predicting the future is a mug’s game at the best of times, never mind during these times. This is inherently recognised in the fact that some of the predictions are contradictory.
I was particularly interested in the political, economic and sociocultural predictions. For instance, I have wondered if in the coming decades society will prioritise getting the basics right more over relentless innovation. This article suggests that may be the case, but that the shift may not last long.
The crisis may prompt a reappraisal of what society cares about most, with short-term attention focusing on the bottom of Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’. (This may have the effect of, for example, boosting relative status of health workers and farmers, and diminishing ‘luxury’ industries, including leisure, gaming, arts – although history suggests that this will be short-lived, and the luxury status of some goods and services may ultimately be reinforced.)
This case study would be seen by some as a reason not to understand users at all. “If I asked users what they wanted, they’d say faster horses. Hurr hurr.”
In fact, like the idea of faster horses, it demonstrates how important it is to understand your users in the right way, not just pay lip service to doing so.
Badly-designed user research leads respondents to certain responses. This is often unintentional — avoiding bias is difficult.
Sometimes it’s intentional. Perhaps the survey designer has a pet idea. They might (subconsciously) skew the questions in a certain way to get the answers they want.
A classic example is asking someone if they would like a certain feature to be added to a product. The answer is almost always: “Er, yes, I suppose so.” People think they like choice, so more features sounds good. But in reality, too many features — or too much choice — leads to choice paralysis and greater frustration.
The lesson isn’t to ignore user research. But be aware of your biases. Be wary of surveys as a methodology. And don’t simply ask people what they want. Instead, understand what they do, and why they do it.
The FIA has announced a series of safety changes, including major improvements to the designs of F1 and other single-seater cars, following investigations of “28 serious and fatal accidents” at circuits during 2019.
It’s easy to talk about “freak accidents”. So it’s reassuring to see that the FIA are proposing a wide range of major safety improvements to cars and circuits. At first glace, the wide range of proposals — from strengthening chassis, to improving run-off areas, to implementing procedures around rejoining the circuit, to automated warning systems — seem largely sensible, and indicate that no stone has been left unturned in the quest to improve safety.
This film took almost 50 years to hit the cinema screens because the filmmakers inexplicably failed to use a clapperboard, making it impossible to edit until digital technology arrived.
The director was Sydney Pollack, who won 11 Oscars throughout his career.
“There were thousands of pieces of film with no edit points, and they were trying to sync it up to a tape recorder.” Hence the incomplete VHS and Hamilton’s invoice: He had been hired to match up footage to music by reading people’s lips.
Eventually, Pollack gave up and the hours of footage were relegated to vaults. “Sydney couldn’t really explain it to me,” Elliott says of when he brought it up to the late director. “He was a proud man.”
It seems like knowledge of this film was limited until recently, but a lot of people must have been seething at the calamity. I guess it’s a reminder that even the most successful people can make catastrophic mistakes in their field of expertise.
I happened to be listening to Trans-Europe Express — the first Kraftwerk album I bought — earlier today.
This piece really challenged my thinking.
In my job I am currently trying to figure out ways to make quality user research scale across the organisation in a sustainable manner. It’s like one of those triangular diagrams outlining three goals: “you can have two of these things”.
Working in such a large organisation, central resources inevitably have their limits. My desire is to empower others to carry out their own user research. Our role becomes an education role. How we do that remains an unsolved problem. Various attempts have yielded variable results.
But Saswati Saha Mitra, reflecting on her experiences of trying to democratise user research, suggests that it is a bad idea.
A researcher is a dynamic thinker who has to adapt their methods and questions based on who is in front of them, how much they have already learnt and what new areas could be probed on. This did not happen. We got a lot of verbatim and videos which after a point became repetitive and did not add more to the analysis. This then led to analysis paralysis.
I’m inclined to continue trying to empower others to conduct user research. But this article is food for thought.
The University of Edinburgh Website and Communications team is hiring a Senior Content Designer. Come and join my team!
If you’re passionate about using evidence-based approaches to create great content that meets users’ needs, we want to hear from you.
Read the blog post to learn more about the position and how to apply.
This is the sort of reason why I don’t trust the state with my data as much as I trust many private companies. Apple and Google have worked together (itself a minor miracle) to develop a method of contact tracing that does not collect personal data and does not invade people’s privacy.
NHSX has rejected that model in favour of one that will enable them to deanonymise people, and store that information in a centralised database. This is the surveillance state. It risks reducing goodwill towards the NHS and other public institutions.
A statement for medical privacy campaign group Medconfidential reads: “Given NHSX has chosen to build an unnecessary massive pool of sensitive data, it must ensure that the data is well protected. With combined effort, GCHQ and NHS Digital will likely be good at defending the big pool of sensitive data. But there is no need to have that data. The best way to make sure data doesn’t leak, is to have chosen the method that never collected it.”
What makes a good principle? How do you avoid principles that are mere motherhood and apple pie? According to Jeremy Keith, it’s all about establishing priorities.
He goes on to outline the danger of prioritising the experience of developers or designers above the user experience. He makes an interesting observation about a perceived difference in the way developers, er, develop and the way designers do.
Developer efficiency is prized above all else. Like I said, that would be absolutely fine if we’re talking about technologies that only developers are exposed to, but as soon as we’re talking about shipping those technologies over the network to end users, it’s negligent to continue to prioritise the developer experience…
I’ve been talking about developers here, but this is something that applies just as much to designers. But I feel like designers go through that priority shift fairly early in their career. At the outset, they’re eager to make their mark and prove themselves. As they grow and realise that it’s not about them, they understand that the most appropriate solution for the user is what matters, even if that’s a “boring” tried-and-tested pattern that isn’t going to wow any fellow designers.
A few weeks ago, in the early stages of lockdown, Caribou’s album Swim played on shuffle. “This is a recent album,” I thought, “but it reminds me of happier times.
It turns out this album is in fact ten years old today. Time flies, I guess.
It was a time before covid-19. A time before DRS was introduced to Formula 1. A time when (briefly) people agreed with Nick Clegg.
Then I watched the video to Sun, one of the singles from the album. Extraordinarily, it seems made for today’s social distancing.
It features a group of mostly unhappy-looking people stuck in a dark room, dancing at a ceiling lamp as if it’s replacing the sun, and all studiously avoiding touching each other.
The coronavirus outbreak has posed massive challenges for everyone in society. For practitioners of human-centred approaches to design, where face-to-face interaction is often so important to enhancing our understanding, our current requirement to maintain social distancing creates obvious barriers.
However, this doesn’t mean our work to ensure we’re meeting people’s needs has to stop. In fact, there are some perhaps surprising advantages to working remotely as a user experience practitioner.
Over on my team’s blog, I have outlined some of what I’ve learned about remote user research over the past month or so.
Note — 2020-04-16
A drama about coughing ought to be super-triggering during this era. But I really enjoyed Quiz. It took my mind off everything.
An amazing story told in a hilarious way and with a geeky attention to detail. It’s crazy to think this all happened 19 years ago.
A great balancing act from Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant — somehow taking the piss, while simultaneously being note-perfect.
Autechre have recently released long-anticipated official recordings from their 2016 and 2018 tours, which I am currently (slowly) working my way through.
But on this day 15 years ago in Glasgow, Autechre performed perhaps their mightiest live set ever. I love this almost as much as any of their albums.
A lot of IDM-heads celebrate Avril 14th for the Aphex Twin tune, but that was yesterday. I enjoyed Kelly Moran’s cover.
— kelly (@kellymoran) April 14, 2020
Photo — 2020-04-10
We have reached this stage of the lockdown