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Khoi Vinh on how his blog amplified his work and careerOwn Your Content

Khoi Vinh illustration

An interview with Khoi Vinh on the benefits of blogging.

Blogging has always been pivotal to my career. When I was offered my first ‘proper’ job as a web editor at the University of St Andrews, I only really had my blog to speak for. Yet it was enough to get my name out there, and to enable me to develop web skills.

Since then, I’ve had less and less spare time. Now it’s a huge challenge to find the space for myself to blog.

I’d done well last year by publishing something every day. But recently I fell off the wagon. So this line from Khoi Vinh’s interview stood out to me:

I think you’ve just got to do it consistently, repeatedly, and you’ve got to be undeterred by the time it requires and the inconvenience in your life that it generates.

I’ll try to be more tolerant of that inconvenience. It will probably pay off in some way I can’t imagine just now, like it did 10 years ago.

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I’m 49Prefab Sprout

I Trawl The Megahertz cover

I’ve been aware of Paddy McAloon’s 2003 album I Trawl the Megahertz for a while. While I’d always meant to pick it up, I never got round to it. In a sense it’s just as well, as this year it was re-released, remastered, and repackaged as a Prefab Sprout album.

Suffering with health problems, Paddy McAloon spent his time at home, listening to radio phone-ins. This formed the basis of the material on the album. The stunning 22 minute long title track features a splicing together of fragments of these broadcasts to tell a story in spoken word.

Most of the rest of the album is instrumental, but I’m 49 returns to the radio broadcasts, this time sampling them directly.

As pointed out by Paddy McAloon in this reissue’s liner notes, it’s not the first time the musicality of found voices has been exploited by a musician. He namechecks Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Steve Reich’s Different Trains also springs to mind. Musically, the albums seems to take a clear cue from American minimalist composers.

The story of the making of the album — centred around Paddy McAloon’s ill health — also reminds me of how Brian Eno is said to have pursued ambient music. It is said that Brian Eno was in bed, unable to get up to adjust the volume of his radio, and ended up being inspired by the sparseness of the resulting sound.

I Trawl the Megahertz has a melancholic vibe. “I’m 49, divorced.” What makes ordinary people bare their souls to radio hosts? This seems to be the question asked by the album. But the album also provides an answer — to adversity. Faced with illness, like Brian Eno, Paddy McAloon created some wonderful music.

Now I only wonder why it took me until now to discover it properly.

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How we tweet about BrexitJon WorthEuroblog

Person screaming

Jon Worth has noticed that the wrong sort of thing gets traction on Twitter. This isn’t a new insight, of course — and it’s not just about Brexit. But he suggests a solution.

Make judicious use of Twitter lists. Retweet sensible stuff instead of confirmation bias sustaining content. Retweet people who themselves have a small audience, and could do with more exposure.

I’ve often thought of this like eating your greens. I’ve found myself unfollowing people I agree with, if they have the wrong tone and a myopic viewpoint. I’d also suggest actively looking to follow people with different perspectives or those you disagree with. Engage with people who contribute meaningfully and respectfully.

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Unraveling the jpegOmar ShehataParametric Press

A fascinating look at how jpeg compression works, with lots of interactive examples you can play with.

It’s worth learning about not just because it’s important to understand the technology we all use everyday, but also because, as we unravel the layers of compression, we learn a bit about perception and vision, and about what details our eyes are most sensitive to.

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Photo — 2019-05-23

Poster: "Vote Liberal Democrat — Stop Brexit"

If you’re for the UK remaining in the EU, vote Liberal Democrat 🔶

The Liberal Democrats are the only party who have always committed to the UK remaining united with our neighbours in the EU.

The European Parliament may not have oversight of Brexit. But if you’re a remainer, you can’t afford to vote for Labour or the Conservatives. If you do, they will count your vote as a mandate for their unworkable and disastrous Brexit.

After the Tories lost over 1,300 seats in this month’s local elections, Theresa May and Labour interpreted it as a pro-Brexit vote:

I think there has been a very clear message from people to both main parties that they want us to get on and deliver Brexit, so I welcome comments from Jeremy Corbyn that he thinks we should be working to ensure we can deliver a deal.

This shows us how crystal clear we need to be in the message we send.

And before someone suggests voting for the SNP or the Greens, remember they want to take us out of the UK — which would automatically take us out of the EU — and would be even worse than Brexit anyway.

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Encouraging self-service through improving content at the University of EdinburghLauren TormeyGatherContent

Diagram demonstrating process of continuous improvement

My awesome colleague Lauren Tormey wrote this blog post about a brilliant project she’s been involved in. She has been collaborating with our Information Services Helpline to reduce unnecessary support calls by iteratively improving content with a regular cycle of usability testing.

Over two summers, we had done work to improve content related to getting a student ID card. This was another case of turning long pages with giant paragraphs into concise step-by-step pages.

From July to September 2017, the IS Helpline received 433 enquires related to student cards. For this same period in 2018, they received 224, so the figure nearly halved. I repeat: halved.

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Own it!Matt JukesNotbinary

On the incredible story about Hertz suing Accenture for a failed “digital transformation project”.

Alarm bells ring at the best of times when website redesigns are described as “digital transformation”. But to then completely outsource the product owner role — to the same management consultancy firm that was carrying out the redesign — underlines just how much the top brass seemingly didn’t get it.

Particularly important is this:

The private sector is NOT intrinsically better at these things than the public sector. Occasions like this and the TSB meltdown should never be celebrated but should surely be greeted by a wry smile by those of us who have been hearing about the incompetence of public service digital for years from some corners — and particularly why there was never any need to bring things in-house because all the expertise was with the big suppliers.

I would argue that this isn’t even just about digital. The idea that public sector organisations are inherently worse at anything than the private sector has long been spurious. Large organisations perhaps do find certain things more difficult — but in both the public and private sector.

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DivineSébastien Tellier

Sexuality album cover

I woke up this morning to BBC Radio 6 Music playing a remix of Kilometer by Sébastien Tellier. It is quite some way to be introduced to the day.

But with the Eurovision Song Contest this weekend, it put me in mind of the fact that Sébastien Tellier is in fact responsible for my favourite Eurovision performance, Divine.

France’s 2008 entry was controversial, because Divine was sung in English, which France’s powers-that-be don’t like. So Sébastien Tellier had to re-write part of it in French.

As you can see, that was only the start of the weirdness. The bearded women, the golf cart, the weird locked-off camera angles. And who else would have the audacity to consume helium in the middle of what would probably be the biggest performance of their life?

There was no doubt where my vote was going in 2008. It came 19th. That result was at least better than their previous three entries.

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Scapegoating user experience designKhoi VinhSubtraction

Stylised photo of a Nest camera

An article published yesterday in The Washington Post demonstrates the danger of design’s failure to broaden popular understanding of our craft.

The article pinpoints Nest’s focus on reducing friction as the reason for their cameras’ weak security.

Khoi Vinh points out that…

…the concept of user experience writ large is not to blame here; what’s actually at fault is bad user experience practice.

The point being that good security is fundamental to good user experience. As any good designer would know, they are not in conflict. Quite the opposite, in fact.

It strikes me that Nest are using ‘reducing friction’ as a poor excuse for not implementing better security. I’m sure they’re not the only ones guilty of this.

On another point, this article got me thinking about journalism. Khoi Vinh refuses to blame the Washington Post’s perspective on “lazy journalism”, perhaps correctly.

But any time I read a mainstream/non-specialist journalist write about a topic I know a little about (motorsport, the web, whatever), I’m always astonished at how many basic errors are made. It’s a challenge if designers want the help of journalism when “explaining what it is that we do to the world at large.”

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Sybil´s DreamBeautify Junkyards

The Invisible World of Beautify Junkyards cover

A recent slice of hauntology from the collectable Ghost Box Records. I have to admit this album, The Invisible World of Beautify Junkyards, has taken a while to grow on me. But my, has it grown.

As much as I love it, some Ghost Box material can get a bit samey. Perhaps it’s inevitable (or intentional?) given that it showcases a type of dark nostalgia; mal-remembered pasts. (Or, in the label’s own words, “the misremembered musical history of a parallel world.”)

Beautify Junkyards breathes new life into the ghostly universe of hauntology. They are Portuguese, but seemingly take cues from British acid folk music. Unashamedly inspired by an imagined past, but adding adding new dimensions to create something uncannily new. And with a songwriterly quality that isn’t always at the forefront of a Ghost Box project.

It almost takes us full circle to the early material of Broadcast, in many ways the genesis of Ghost Box.

If Sybil´s Dream didn’t do it for you, try Ghost Dance.

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Want to see what one digital future for newspapers looks like? Look at The Guardian, which isn’t losing money anymoreJoshua BentonNieman Journalism Lab

"The Guardian (actually makes money now)"

How the Guardian finally started making a profit, in three steps.

With a functionally infinite supply of free news available, the relationship your reader has to you has to be a lot more like the one public radio listeners have with their favorite station. They’re not buying access; they’re supporting a cause.

I’d also add that the Guardian has one major advantage over almost every other publisher in the world. They uniquely decided not to go down the rabbit hole of autoplaying videos, pop-up adverts, and other infuriating ways of getting in the way of what the readers actually came for.

This week I visited the Scotsman website, and one of the ads inserted a nasty redirect that my browser told me was taking me to an untrustworthy site. There are lots of news sites that I simply can’t trust for this reason. The Guardian is one I can still trust.

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Change UK / TIG’s Twitter name gaffeSteerpikeThe Spectator

Change UK event

Change UK have changed their Twitter handle to something somehow even more incomprehensible. And in doing so, they have forgotten to protect the old account handle — meaning that someone campaigning for a hard Brexit now has control of it.

Even more unfortunately, anyone Googling the Independent Group to find out more about the newly formed party, will instead by directed to the hard Brexit account. And the party managed to lose its Twitter ‘blue tick’ which verifies that a user is genuine.

My trajectory of feelings about Change UK has gone from hope, to horror, to sheer anger. These incompetents are now actually hindering the pro-Europe cause.

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Formula E set to become world championshipSam SmithE-racing365

Formula E cars

I’ll be honest — I thought Formula E already was a world championship. I’m a motorsport geek and I never even noticed Formula E didn’t have world championship status. Which makes me wonder what’s in it for Formula E.

Formula E seems to be doing well enough as it is without world championship status. It certainly seems to have a higher profile than, for instance, the World Rallycross Championship. And it’s definitely bigger than the FIA GT World Championship was, when that was a thing.

I’m no expert, but it seems to me as if there’s more in this for the FIA than for Formula E. I’m just surprised it hasn’t happened before.

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User research into the needs of students and staff using LearnWebsite and Communications Blog

Me running a workshop for Learn Foundations

Since September, my main focus at work has been to carry out a comprehensive programme of user research for a project aiming to improve services surrounding Blackboard Learn, the University of Edinburgh’s main virtual learning environment.

I wrote this blog post providing a high-level overview of all the work that’s taken place this academic year. More detailed blog posts about each of the strands of research will come in due course.

This is been a brilliant project to be involved in. We’ve been given a lot of time and freedom to do large amount of research in support of one of the university’s most important digital services, used daily by most of our students, and many staff members.

We have made some really important discoveries. This work is ensuring that improvements are based on a strong understanding of users’ behaviour and needs when working with course materials digitally.

Check out this video, where I describe the work and some of the findings in a bit more detail, and keep an eye out for the forthcoming blog posts.

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Apple cracks down on apps that fight iPhone addictionJack NicasThe New York Times

Apple logo eating app icons in the style of Pac-Man

Apple has been making it harder for people to use apps that help people spend less time on their iPhones. And they’ve not been making it clear why. Apple have their own tool, but…

He has found Apple’s tool more complicated and less restrictive. His children have already found workarounds to Apple’s web-filtering tool and, unlike the apps he had used, it has no kill switch to quickly disable certain apps on their phones, Mr. Chantry said.

“It didn’t make managing these new digital threats any easier,” he said. “It actually made it more difficult.”

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RecallPlaid

Polymer cover

A surprising* new dimension to Plaid’s sound — glitchy and hard-hitting.

The publicity surrounding their forthcoming album, Polymer, says:

The problems and benefits of Polymers felt like good themes for this album, their repetitious strength, endurance and troubling persistence, the natural versus the synthetic, silk and silicone, the significant effect they have on our lives.

Plaid make good music, but rarely have they seemed quite so vital as this.

* I say surprising, although it had previously been revealed in this little-seen video collaboration with Laura Buckley called Repel Darker:

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The cave paintings of BrexitDavid Allen GreenThe Law and Policy Blog

Cave painting

David Allen Green explains how the usual sources of information on British politics have been useless at explaining Brexit.

A Brexit historian with access only to the front parts of UK newspapers and to government publications would be like the classical historian convinced that the Romans were pre-occupied with crockery.

He notes that Brussels correspondents have been more informative than their Westminster counterparts. His point about Irish journalism providing better insights resonates with me as well. They’ve seemed much more switched on about certain aspects of the Brexit shitshow.

British politics is in a huge a mess at the moment. Is part of that down to the fact that British journalism has got stuck in a rut?

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15 months of fresh hell inside FacebookNicholas Thompson and Fred VogelsteinWired

Mark Zuckerberg surrounded by Facebook icons

I enjoy Wired’s periodic long articles about Facebook. They avoid the shrillness that most media outlets exhibit when writing or talking about Facebook. This article is all the more powerful for it. And unlike many self-publicists who spend a lot of time writing basic stuff about Facebook and acting as though they’ve discovered the story of the decade, this contains genuine insights and new information.

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Describing personasIndi YoungIndi’s Essays

Personas are one of the most popular techniques in the user experience toolkit, but they also remain among the most controversial. It is often still unclear to some what value personas can bring, and how to avoid the pitfalls of bad personas.

This article brings one of the clearest explanations I’ve seen of how to make good personas. It is a lengthy but must-read article if you make personas and want to make them work.

This article is particularly useful at explaining why obsessing over demographics is bad, and why you should instead focus on “thinking styles”.

Statements-of-fact, preferences, and demographics frequently serve as distracting barriers. They kick off all kinds of subconscious reactions in team members minds.

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People in the CityAir

10 000 Hz Legend cover

A great song, really effectively set to footage from Koyaanisqatsi by someone on YouTube.

10 000 Hz Legend is not as well-regarded as Air’s first album, Moon Safari. But I personally prefer it. Moon Safari opened the floodgates to a host of cliched chillout albums by sub-par artists. 10 000 Hz Legend shook it all off, and carved a new path. I think it stands the test of time better as a result.

This one appears to be the official video, but for some reason using a rather weak live version of the song.

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How do we design for divergence and diversity if convergence is the goal?Alastair Somerville

Is convergence in design thinking problematic?

The problem I have with it is it models a form of Normality. You can diverge but, in the end, you must converge.

An interesting idea from Alastair Somerville. He explains his alternative design process:

Yes, there is a convergence to design a product that meets identified user needs. Yes, there are constraints around what can be made.

However, divergence is recognised through the process.

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The privilege of free time in Open SourceDries Buytaert

Caption: "Free time to contribute is a privilege."

Dries Buytaert makes a very good point here. Time is the scarcest resource we have. This is making open source a closed shop.

Today, I’ve come to understand that inequality makes it difficult for underrepresented groups to have the “free time” it takes to contribute to Open Source.

He suggests some ways open source communities could take action on this.

Overall, being kinder, more patient and more supportive to others could go a long way in welcoming more people to Open Source.

The culture of coding seems nasty generally. I’m not sure if it’s specifically a problem with open source as opposed to developers generally.

But I always found it odd how unwelcoming, patronising and generally unhelpful people in open source communities (such as WordPress support forums) can sometimes be. Sometimes it doesn’t seem very open at all.

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Close to the EdgeYes

Close to the Edge cover

Prog rock has a bad name. Prog rock by Yes perhaps has a particularly bad name. But sometimes, a 19 minute long wig out is what you need. It accompanied a lunchtime for me last week, and my afternoon felt better than my morning. What a song.

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I was a strong Brexiteer. Now we must swallow our pride and think againPeter OborneOpenDemocracy

UK and EU flags

Required reading, whether you are pro- or anti-EU, from a Brexiter who is seriously considering that he may have been wrong.

I don’t agree with all of it. But it is a crystal clear analysis.

Amid the increasingly hysterical attitude from significant elements of both sides of the debate, this is a highly valuable contribution. This is the standard of debate we should be aspiring to.

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Improving student experiences in Learn: usability testing showcase and workshopInformatics Learning Technology Service

Prioritised usability issues

My colleague Alex Burford from the University of Edinburgh School of Informatics has written this great blog post about some usability testing we have conducted in support of the Learn Foundations project.

I thoroughly enjoyed working with Duncan Stephen on this mini project. The feedback was informative, encouraging, and a call to action. I’m looking forward to embedding similar practice across the School for alternative platforms for content delivery.

You can read my own reflections on this work at the Website and Communications team blog.

Each month we are working with a different school to conduct usability testing in Learn, the virtual learning environment, to inform improvements to the Learn service.

This is just one strand of a huge amount of user research I’ve been carrying out for the Learn Foundations project. It’s been a fascinating and very enjoyable project to work on. I’ve been pretty lax at writing about it yet — but I’ll be posting much more about it soon.

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Note — 2019-04-03

Update for email and WordPress.com subscribers

Last week I changed the address of my website to duncanstephen.net. It has taken a little longer for all my subscribers to migrate across — but you should be receiving my updates again now.

Here are the posts you missed:

Thanks for reading, and I hope you stick around!

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