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Understanding design better by looking from different levels of magnificationNicola DobieckaWebsite and Communications Blog

Screenshot from Powers of Ten showing a man having a picnic

My colleague Nicola Dobiecka wrote this brilliant blog post about how designers need to take different approaches depending on the level they are working at. It builds on Jared Spool’s analogy with Charles and Ray Eames’ classic film Powers of Ten.

Essentially, colleagues at different levels of the organisation have different perspectives. All valid, but all require different skills and processes.

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The Technology God is fakeGerry McGovern

In the grand delusion that is Brexit, the grandest delusion of all is the Brexiteers’ fawning adoration of the Technology God. According to Brexiteers, the Technology God will banish all problems, particularly those associated with the border on the island of Ireland. Grand Boffo Johnson ascended the mountain, and the Technology God conveyed the message that there existed no need for a border because the Technology God would solve everything. No evidence, no detail required, just faith in the Technology God.

Outsourcing your decision-making to vague promises from technology is a way of avoiding thinking about the people your policies will impact.

Technology isn’t neutral. It’s only as good as the intentions behind it. Technology is created by humans. It impacts humans. If you’re creating the technology, you must think of the impact on your fellow humans.

As people say in the technology world, “garbage in, garbage out”.

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F1 responds to criticism of television broadcastsKeith CollantineRaceFans

The best bit about this is the fact that they are apologising in advance for the inevitably poor quality of coverage in Singapore…

…we have to really convey what the city is like, this amazing skyline and these fantastic buildings.

How about no?

I’m sure it’s in the contract with the Singapore Grand Prix race promoters, that they must allot a certain amount of the broadcast to showing the city, and not the race. The same goes with Abu Dhabi and that ridiculous vibrator-shaped hotel.

And the Russian Grand Prix. Every year, without fail, they have cut away from the live action to broadcast footage of Vladimir Putin arriving by helicopter about a third of the way through the race. Then some laps later they show him gormlessly sitting next to Bernie Ecclestone in a near-empty grandstand, looking about as interested in the race as some lichen would. Every year. Watch it this year and take a drink when it happens.

The sooner F1 becomes less reliant on these ridiculous publicity-hungry governments, and goes back to real racing on proper circuits, the better. But then, it will be harder to excuse the bad TV coverage.

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Note — 2019-09-14

I will be away for the next couple of weeks, as Alex and I are going on our honeymoon. I’ve scheduled a number of posts to publish while I’m away, so things aren’t going to go completely quiet. But if I seem inattentive, it’s because I am having prime holiday time.

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Ágætis byrjunSigur Rós

Ágætis byrjun cover

Music was one of the jobs I was put in charge of for our wedding. Alex isn’t particularly interested in music. We don’t have any shared musical memories. We don’t have “our song”. So that made some aspects of the wedding planning tricky.

For instance, there were no obvious candidates — or, indeed, any candidates at all — for what Alex would walk down the aisle to. And because I never imagined I would get married until I met Alex, it’s not something that I had my own ideas about either.

Just a few weeks before the big day, I knew we had to make this decision. I mined my record collection for any shared musical memories we might have.

I considered something from Concrete Antenna, a beautiful experimental record that I’d never heard of until Alex bought it as a gift. It’s one of the most perfect gifts she ever got me, because I didn’t know it existed, but I loved it. But Alex decided it sounded too dark for our wedding.

Another candidate was something from the FFS album. We saw FFS when they played as part of the Edinburgh International Festival a few years ago, and we both really enjoyed the concert. But again, it didn’t strike the right tone. (We did end up using Johnny Delusional as the ceremony closer.)

Eventually, I started to just pull out records and CDs that I thought sounded nice. I had to loosen up some of the rules I had imposed on the process. Crucially, the “no Sigur Rós” rule.

Ágætis byrjun is Sigur Rós’s best album. The title track doesn’t always get the most attention, but it is my favourite from the album. Listening to it while thinking about our upcoming wedding gave it a new emotional appeal for me.

I looked up translations of the lyrics, which I hadn’t paid much attention to before because it’s sung in Icelandic. It’s actually about the band listening to the finished mix of their first album, Von, and feeling like it was OK but could be improved. The title translates as “A good beginning”.

But the lyrics are also ambiguous. An alternative interpretation is that the song is about a fledgling relationship.

It seemed particularly apt for us, because we had two “first dates”. The first one was a good start. We did better next time (and never looked back).

I really like the brief, mild moments of dissonance in this song. It’s beautiful, but not quite perfect. Like life. Or like a relationship. The key is to recognise that it’s a good beginning, and we will do better next time.

The album has just been reissued in a 20th anniversary edition with three CDs of additional material. It’s astonishing to think this is 20 years old. At least it’s not as disturbing to me as OK Computer. I only discovered Ágætis byrjun in about 2001 when it became a sleeper cult hit outside of Iceland so I can still think of it as an 18 year old album.

I’m also fond of this live acoustic version from Heim.

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First click tests — building up the elements of user experience for Learn FoundationsWebsite and Communications Blog

First click heatmap

We had developed an information architecture and tree tests as part of our programme of user research for Learn Foundations. The next step was to use first click tests to pit the new template against existing courses.

The latest post in my series for the Website and Communications blog about our user research work around the University of Edinburgh’s virtual learning environment.

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Boris Johnson’s secret plan to gather “targeted and personalised” data before BrexitAlex SpenceBuzzFeed News

Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson has secretly ordered the Cabinet Office to turn the government’s public internet service into a platform for “targeted and personalised information” to be gathered in the run-up to Brexit, BuzzFeed News has learned.

In a move that has alarmed Whitehall officials, the prime minister has instructed departments to share data they collect about usage of the GOV.UK portal so that it can feed into preparations for leaving the European Union at the end of next month.

This is why I am unlikely ever to work for a government.

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The double diamond, 15 years on…Cat DrewDesign Council

It’s 15 years since the Design Council came up with the double diamond, a model of the design process.

I find it useful as a general guide, although it does seem to confuse many people who assume it to be a strictly linear process. Recent conversations I’ve had at both the Service Design Academy and work have shown me that it remains a challenge to truly convey the complexity of a design process, and that the double diamond may in fact hinder this.

As always, it’s about having the right approach and mindset, rather than expecting an off-the-shelf tool or model to fix all your problems. Cat Drew’s article points this out:

But following a toolkit does not equal designing a good solution to the right problem. It is as much about the mindsets as the tools (e.g. being humble and open to ideas coming from everywhere and changing as a result of feedback, curious about what’s really going on and how things are working or not and working as teams rather than as a lone genius).

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The Thinnest PlaceJustin Hopper & Sharron Kraus with the Belbury Poly

Chanctonbury Rings cover

Chanctonbury Rings combines the folk music of Sharron Kraus and retro electronics of the Belbury Poly with spoken word from Justin Hopper. It’s a perhaps unlikely combination.

This is made all the more unlikely by the fact that, despite Justin Hopper’s American accent, the music is unmistakably English. It immediately reminded me of the Seasons (a cultish, unsettling 1969 BBC LP for use by schools’ drama departments, featuring music by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop).

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this. I picked it up because I’m a Ghost Box completist. But I found myself in a truly immersive listen. Hauntology at its finest.

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Daniel Ricciardo — Danger and DeathChequered Flag Formula 1BBC Radio 5 live

Daniel Ricciardo

A very frank, in-depth interview with Daniel Riccardo talking about the aftermath of Anthoine Hubert’s death and how he got back into the cockpit to start the race less than 24 hours later.

The interview by Andrew Benson is summarised here.

I found his description of going through Raidillon for the first time particularly powerful:

I told myself: ‘Go full throttle, and just don’t over-think this corner, don’t over-think any of it.’ Out of the pits… held it full. That was a relief but it felt good to get out there and do that. And that also told me that I was ready to go.

I think if I was, big lift and scared, then that would be a sign that maybe I shouldn’t be on the track right now. I guess I wanted to do that to test myself and then it all felt right.

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Do MotoGP riders get depressed?Mat OxleyMotor Sport Magazine

Johann Zarco listening to a mechanic

In the wake of Johann Zarco’s request to be released from his contract with KTM, Mat Oxley uncovers a side of MotoGP riders not often talked about.

Do MotoGP riders — surely some of the strongest people on Earth — get depressed? Of course they do! Motorcycle racing may be a macho game, but machismo never stopped anyone getting depressed, quite the opposite, in fact.

It’s also fascinating to see Valentino Rossi talking so openly about his mental health issues when he raced for Ducati.

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Note — 2019-09-02

I’m doing a couple of talks this week. They are both about the user research we’ve been doing for the Learn Foundations project.

This evening I will be presenting at the Edinburgh UX monthly meetup. It’s a friendly meetup and it’s free, so do come along if you’re interested.

Then on Wednesday I’ll be presenting with my colleagues Karen Howie and Paul Smyth at the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) Annual Conference.

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Academia uneasy with lack of diversity on ‘dude walls’ of honourNell GreenfieldboyceNPR

A 'dude wall' featuring several portraits of white old men

On the campaign to remove — or make less prominent — walls of portraits of old white men from academia’s past.

“It just sends the message, every day when you walk by it, that science consists of old white men,” says [neuroscientist Leslie] Vosshall. “I think every institution needs to go out into the hallway and ask, ‘What kind of message are we sending with these oil portraits and dusty old photographs?'”

While defenders of dude walls warn of erasing history, the counterpoint is powerful:

…some argue that the old portraits themselves have erased history, by glorifying white men who hold power while ignoring the contributions to science and medicine made by women and people of colour.

Celebrations of individuals in this way always make me wary. It seems to be particularly common in higher education, where awards and buildings are routinely named after white males.

But very few breakthroughs are truly the work of a single individual. The people honoured in this way are likely the people most adept at taking all the credit for other people’s work.

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JoggingRichard Dawson

2020 cover

A song I heard on the radio this week that made my ears prick up. I wasn’t previously aware of Richard Dawson. But this is a brilliant song — dark, funny, meaningful, relatable, of our time. Once again I’m beginning to think that the most interesting music is actually coming from rock music for a change. Consider the album pre-ordered.

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Why did the UK become a failed state?Simon Wren-Lewismainly macro

This post is about how a policy (crashing out of the EU) that will do nearly everyone harm and some great harm seems to have considerable, albeit still minority, support…

You either have to assume that a third of the population has gone mad, or instead see this as a fundamental failure of information. The UK is a failed state because the producers of information have made it fail.

According to Simon Wren-Lewis, this information problem is being facilitated by the media.

In one sense, the idea that people don’t have enough information to make an informed decision is nothing new. As I’ve written in the past, ignorance is inevitable.

But there does seem to be something particular going on in Britain right now that is causing something even worse than mere ignorance.

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Author of Practical Empathy Indi Young on going deeper than insightsCarrie Neilldscout

Indi Young illustration

It’s always great to see advice from Indi Young. Here are tips on how to better identify and synthesise patterns in qualitative data.

…when you’re looking at data, don’t group things together by noun. Group them together by verb. I’ve done a lot of work with the healthcare industry, and one thing I often see research teams do is bring together insights that are all about a noun — here is all of the data that we got about how people feel about the doctors. But when you do that the intent behind what people are really saying ends up all over the place.

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Photo — 2019-08-18

Continuum by Bridget Riley

Continuum — Bridget Riley — on exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery.

It’s Bridget Riley’s only ever 3D work. Entering inside it, I perhaps understood why. It wasn’t quite tall enough to fully immerse me.

I highly recommend you visit this if you can. It is a very comprehensive exhibition of her career, spanning more than 70 years, including paintings from this year.

Bridget Riley study

The room containing her black-and-white works of the 1960s are of course a highlight. I am constantly in awe of how these static paintings can appear to be moving at great speed.

Bridget Riley studies

But I was also fascinated by the room containing her studies, where you can see her working out how to create these incredible mind-bending paintings.

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Can everyone be excellent?Alfie Kohn

A very good piece about why fears around grade inflation and the like are spurious. Even if everyone meets high standards, people continue to call for the standards to be made higher still. Moreover, people exhibit a damaging compulsion to rank.

But boy, do we love to rank. Worse, we create artificial scarcity such as awards — distinctions manufactured out of thin air specifically so that some cannot get them. Every contest involves the invention of a desired status where none existed before and none needs to exist. This creates an adversarial mentality that makes productive collaboration less likely, encourages gaming the system, and leads all concerned to focus not on meaningful improvement but on trying to outdo (and perhaps undermine) everyone else.

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Note — 2019-08-13

Dark mode

I have now implemented a dark mode for this website. Many operating systems are now offering dark mode as a preference. If you have dark mode switched on, this website now displays in a fetching darker colour scheme.

Media queries to the rescue!

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Photo — 2019-08-13

Bowl of white chocolate Coco Pops, looking just like Rice Krispies

White chocolate Coco Pops are the greatest/worst invention because it looks just like you’re eating Rice Krispies.

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Albon replaces Gasly at Red Bull for Belgian Grand PrixKeith CollantineRaceFans

At this stage, I wonder how Helmut Marko gets away with this. His driver/vanity programme is a monumental failure. Pierre Gasly’s demotion to Toro Rosso after only 12 races is just the latest in a trail of destruction wreaked upon drivers ever since Red Bull Junior Team’s inception.

At Toro Rosso he joins Daniil Kvyat, who has also been rejected by Red Bull’s programme multiple times, only to be invited back due to the scheme’s utter dearth of talent.

Meanwhile, Red Bull lack the patience required to build their drivers’ confidence and skill.

Luke Smith’s tweet sums it up neatly:

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The birth of InterCarmel DeAmicisFigma

Inter typeface detail

I’ve been using the Inter typeface on this blog (and other things) for 1½ years now.* I love it.

Rasmus [Andersson, the designer of Inter] did some research and experimentation and eventually realized there was no free, high-quality text typefaces for computer UIs. That felt backwards to him given how type heavy many UIs are. So he set to work creating one and released the first set of glyphs in August 2017. He’s been iterating on it continuously ever since.

What I really admire about Inter is the way it looks brilliant at both small sizes and large sizes. There really are not many typefaces you can say that about.

It also feels like it has genuinely been designed for our time, while seeming familiar like Helvetica or Univers. While those classics fall down somewhat as digital typefaces (no surprise given how old they are), Inter manages to improve on other digital-first typefaces like Roboto.

Incredibly, while Roboto has the might of Google behind it, Inter is one person’s side project. I have a lot of admiration for this project.

Now, if only it was available on Google Fonts

* Yes, that was just an excuse to use the ½ glyph.

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Bottas considering ‘plan B and C’ if Mercedes drop himDieter Rencken and Keith CollantineRaceFans

I fear the writing is on the wall for Valtteri Bottas. It was bad enough that Toto Wolff has now explicitly said he’s considering replacing Bottas with Esteban Ocon.

But when even Bottas himself is talking about having a plan B and plan C, surely the game is up. It’s not just the fact that he’s considering it. That’s only sensible for anyone to do.

But in talking about it, he is exposing his weakness. A more driven individual (even if he is talking to other teams behind the scenes) would surely still say he is fully committed to Mercedes and, determined to retain his drive, and not thinking about anything else.

Talking like this just makes Bottas seem like he’s already thrown in the towel.

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Note — 2019-08-07

Is there a way to force all mobile apps to open web URLs in my actual browser of choice, instead of the crappy WebView they make you use? This is one thing I am truly fed up with now.

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Card sorting has informed a new information architecture for Learn coursesWebsite and Communications Blog

Results of the card sorting study

How we used card sorting to help us devise a consistent information architecture for Learn VLE courses at the University of Edinburgh.

775 students participated in the study — and no two students submitted the same card sort. This highlights the great challenge faced by the Learn Foundations project in attempting to create a more standardised template that meets the wide variety of needs across the University.

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