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
I have worried about the social and mental health effects of the lockdown measures being implemented. But even I hadn’t anticipated quite how much conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder appear to be common following quarantines.
According to a rapid review of the psychological effects of quarantines, published on March 14th in the Lancet, a British medical journal, some studies suggest that the impact of quarantines can be so severe as to result in a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder…
One study from 2009 looked at hospital employees in Beijing who in 2003 were exposed to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which, like covid-19, is caused by a coronavirus. The authors found that, three years later, having been quarantined was a predictor of post-traumatic-stress symptoms. Another study… found that the mean post-traumatic-stress scores were four times higher in children who had been isolated.
Elsewhere, the article highlights as a problem the fact that 67% of 18–34-year-olds are finding it hard to remain upbeat. But I’m more concerned about those who are managing to be upbeat among all this madness.
The effects of coronavirus and the lockdown on people with mental health conditions.
I fear that when this pandemic is over, the actual death toll will number far higher than those whose deaths were directly caused by Covid-19. I foresee a mental health crisis with no resources left to deal with it.
I really valued this conversation about the coronavirus outbreak on the Adam Buxton podcast. It is a good deal more informative, measured and realistic — and less reactionary — than most of what we are hearing from most people.
What’s worse than design by committee? Design system by committee.
Note — 2020-03-20
Virtual birthday party — 9pm tonight
It’s my birthday today. But I couldn’t really be bothered to organise a physical get-together. Instead, I thought it would be fun to imagine there was some horrific virus that meant we couldn’t really leave the house much, and I had to celebrate it remotely.
Update: This will now take place at 9pm, not 7pm as before.
Bring your own Corona.
Note — 2020-03-18
I’m in Ikea, where lots of people are buying emergency desks.
Photo — 2020-03-15
We spent this afternoon doing something nice. Katie Paterson exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
Following on from Gov.UK’s revelation about
<input type="number">, Dave Rupert has compiled a list of other bits of HTML that can cause inadvertent accessibility issues.
There are some cases where even using plain ol’ HTML causes accessibility problems. I get frustrated and want to quit web development whenever I read about these types of issues. Because if browsers can’t get this right, what hope is there for the rest of us.
Not that we should give up, of course.
Talk about designers “having a seat at the table” generally leaves me cold. But this useful article explains why it can matter — but why designers have a duty to do more than simply be at the table.
Evidence has long suggested that companies with a strong design focus are more successful. The example of Logitech outlined here bears that out.
But if some CEOs don’t understand the value of design, it’s up to designers to articulate it properly.
The Gov.UK Design System team have discovered that using the HTML element
<input type="number"> creates some surprising problems in certain environments.
Some of the limitations in assistive technologies such as Dragon Naturally Speaking are disappointing but unsurprising.
But Chrome deciding to convert large numbers to exponential notation is rather more eyebrow-raising. Then there is Safari adding commas to long numbers that are in fact credit card numbers. You have to wonder about some of the decision-making among browser vendors.
A fascinating myth-busting piece. Lego isn’t more expensive than it used to be. But this article contains some interesting theories as to why people perceive it to be more expensive than it used to be.
A short list of surprisingly common things people ask users to do during a usability test — and what you should do instead.
Not mentioned in this list is the idea that you can ask people just to tell you what they think of the website generally.
The golden rule is: “Try to simulate reality”.
Radiohead there, just casually adding an extra minute to a legendary 20-year-old track.
They may have declared that they are taking a “year away” from music, but they still manage to find ways of keeping fans going.
The recent launch of the Radiohead Public Library generously provides free access to a vast amount of archive material from throughout their career. The addition of this extended version of Treefingers is among the content that has been added even since the launch.
Who needs new Radiohead when you can have new old Radiohead?
Photo — 2020-02-16
Our first wedding anniversary.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web, so there’s been a lot of pixels spilled on “the initial promises of the web”—one of which was the idea that you could select “view source” on any page and easily teach yourself what went into making it display like that.
This article makes a great point about how this promise only truly works if you can speak English.
The process described above is exactly how I learned HTML. The fact that I would have to use “color” instead of “colour” is a mildly amusing inconvenience. I hadn’t really considered before how it must feel if you don’t speak any English.
I don’t speak Russian, and assuming you don’t either, does <заголовок> and <заглавие> and <тело> and <п> still feel like something you want to tinker with?
A history of community politics, how it morphed to become people pointing at potholes, and ultimately undermined politics completely.
Activism was no longer about helping people get the power to solve their own problems, but rather demanding someone at “the council” solve them for them. Rather than “we can help you do things”, the message was now that “something must be done” and “somebody must do something”, but that somebody is almost always somebody else…
Activism based around ideology, empowering people and giving them the ability to sort things out is hard, activism based around being the most efficient local busybody and delivering the most leaflets is comparatively easy.
I have often wondered about political leaflets that are all about a hodgepodge of local issues, but are strangely noncommittal about what should be done about them. All of the leaflets, in every colour, say largely the same noncommittal things about small-to-medium-sized local issues. They almost always fail to adequately explain why Candidate X is the person to deal with it.
It’s all so uninspiring. Perhaps we need to present some actual political ideas again.
Photo — 2020-02-08
Sushi time! 🍣 Thanks Mr Waitrose.
Photo — 2020-02-07
Perks of the job. Today I had a short impromptu tour of the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh on a crisp sunny winter’s morning.
A fascinating history of messaging from 1996’s ICQ to the present day. It details how a series of seemingly minor design decisions have had massive privacy implications and ultimately transformed how humans communicate.
In 1998, Gescom released MiniDisc, said to be the first ever MiniDisc-only release. (I believe the CD artwork, shown here, is a photo of a Sony bigwig showing it off at an event.)
A mere eight years later, MiniDisc was already obsolete, at least in the home. The music was given a CD release, and that is the version I have.
The music was specifically designed to take advantage of MiniDisc features that weren’t available on CDs. The original release even included a running time that was precise to a hundredth of a second, something not possible with CDs. Also unlike CDs, MiniDiscs could handle gapless shuffle.
The music on Gescom’s MiniDisc consisted of 45 pieces divided over 88 tracks. So, for example, Pricks actually consisted of four different tracks varying in length from 5 seconds to 3:55.
The idea was that the listener could shuffle for a new experience every time. Or, they could create their own loops and experiments by playing tracks in different orders.
Gescom is a collective of experimental electronic musicians, presumed to be centred around Autechre’s Sean Booth and Rob Brown, but also said to include up to 30 others. In addition to Booth\Brown, MiniDisc was made by Russell Haswell.
The music itself is ceaselessly experimental. Even in the context of Autechre’s work, this was pretty out there.
But listening today, it’s striking how MiniDisc seems to have laid the groundwork for some of Autechre’s most recent music, particularly on NTS Sessions.
The perils of using an overly-familiar tone of voice in your copy. There are some cracking examples here of support content that prioritises daft quips over getting to the point.
You’ve ordered a package and you want to know how long delivery will take. It’s a straight forward question, so you would expect to find out quickly and easily. What you don’t need is a couple lines of heavily branded content standing between you and your answer. You just want to know how long the delivery will take…
Users are task-led and time-poor.
Photo — 2020-02-02
Making a New World — Field Music at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum last night.
How Bart Simpson explains how we got into this mess.
If you give someone a joke option, they will take it.
Come and work with our team!
We are looking for three experienced Content Designers to join the University of Edinburgh’s Website and Communications team as we embark on major projects to launch our new web publishing platform and services.
If you’re passionate about using evidence-based approaches to create great content that meets users’ needs, we want to hear from you.
There are three positions available. Find out more in the blog post. If you have any questions, just get in touch with me.
For my personal view on what it’s like working with the University of Edinburgh, check out my previous blog post: Why I value working in user experience in higher education.
This is possibly the best explanation I’ve seen of how to conduct user research interviews. This framework could be given to almost everyone, and they would be on their way to conducting good interviews.
It includes a very useful diagram outlining how to structure the interview — when to be open, and when to narrow down.
Why a design system should not be thought of as a Thing like a style guide, but in fact is all about building a community.
I have to tell you: a lot of the time that I’m working in design systems, I’m not even touching a design tool. Or coding. Rather, it’s a lot of people-focused work: Reviewing. Advising. Organizing. Coordinating. Triaging. Educating. Supporting. That’s a lot of invisible systems work right there.