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Repeat after me: Preference testing is not A/B testingDavid TravisUserfocus

Person holding up two photographs

Reasons why you shouldn’t simply ask users to choose which design they prefer.

It turns out people aren’t good at answering this kind of question. People don’t know why, or they don’t care enough to answer, or they may not want to tell you. When asked for an opinion, most people will form one on the spot. Such opinions aren’t carefully considered or deeply held. It’s not that UX researchers don’t care what people like: it’s just risky making important design decisions based on fickle opinions.

User experience isn’t about discovering what people think they want. It’s about finding out what they need.

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Photo — 2019-11-09

Blurred-out photo of Labour leaflets that don't mention Labour

Received two big leaflets from our local Labour MP. But you have to get the microscope out to find out which party he’s from. Maybe it’s to practice looking for their votes.

Also, zero mention of Brexit-enabling Jeremy Corbyn.

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“The signs were completely radical”: Margaret Calvert looks back on her illustrious careerMatt AlagiahIt's Nice That

Illustration of Margaret Calvert

A wonderful interview with Margaret Calvert, who worked with Jock Kinnear on my favourite design — the system of UK road signs.

If you look on Wikipedia, it says we were “responsible for some of the road signs”. We weren’t – we were responsible for thinking out an entire system as well as designing how it was to be, the arrangement of the information and the pictograms that followed. It wasn’t just “some road signs” – that is such an understatement!

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Photo — 2019-10-29

We did it. We ordered BrewDog hybrid burgers.

Not bad! Tastier than they look. The vegan cheese is impressively good. The matcha buns don’t taste much like matcha. Wouldn’t get it again, but fun once.

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The term “responsive web design” has failedFrances Berriman

Those words (originally from a slide by Alex Russell) may seem rather provocative. But it is a fair reminder that design isn’t just about how it looks.

In this case, most people (including, at times, myself) have fallen foul of the trap described here. That of thinking that setting a few breakpoints for smaller screens is enough to be responsive.

It reminded me of Jakob Nielsen’s 2012 article in which he advocated building a complete separate mobile site. This was a controversial viewpoint at a time when responsive design was becoming seriously trendy.

But seven years on, can we truly say the mobile web is a great experience?

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Agile is not a solved problemSam HogarthScott Logic

A reflection on the Agile Manifesto, 18 years on, “making it old enough to drink in pubs”.

The point about the “subtle use of language” in the original Agile Manifesto particularly resonated with me.

When you read it, its simplicity is striking, and it’s actually difficult to disagree with any of it.

The problem is, simple doesn’t sell textbooks, training or consultancy. So over time, agile has been bastardised to become this monstrosity (courtesy of Deloitte).

Deloitte's Agile Landscape v3 - an impenetrable mapping of agile methods depicted as a subway map

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The tipping point: Who is best placed to do strategic design?Anish Joshi

If you can bear another article about whether non-designers should get involved in design work, this isn’t a bad one.

Designers — if you think strategic design is a realm reserved just for you, I’m afraid not.

Other professionals — if you think you can just pick up strategic design like any other general skill, then I’m afraid not.

…the best and most effective use and impact for many people, is actually just to incorporate design thinking techniques into their day jobs.

I have long held the view that user experience is best thought of not as a role, but as a mindset. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for professional designers and user researchers — there absolutely is. But anyone can adopt the techniques and set off on the journey to become more user-centred.

We should encourage more people to do so.

Via Katie Murrie.

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Kimi Räikkönen: F1 looks “ridiculous” not running on wet tracksDieter Rencken and Keith CollantineRaceFans

For years certain people have been telling us not to criticise Pirelli’s high degradation tyres on the basis that “they were only delivering what the FIA asked”. Now, so many years on, and with so many different tyre degradation philosophies supposedly having been pursued, the question is unavoidable. Are Pirelli truly equipped enough to supply tyres to Formula 1, which is supposed to showcase the pinnacle of motorsport technology?

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McLaren’s Dennis ‘asked Brawn GP for secret car data in 2009’Keith CollantineRaceFans

Brawn GP and McLaren cars from 2009

This story isn’t quite as juicy as the headline suggests. Essentially Ron Dennis asked Nick Fry for Brawn GP’s chassis performance figures to help him benchmark the performance of the McLaren.

But it’s still an extraordinary revelation. And one quote in particular made me think of much more recent events.

According to Fry, Dennis told him McLaren’s MP4-24 chassis “is totally under-performing, as you have no doubt noticed, but my engineers say our aerodynamic package is on the money. The thing is I just don’t believe them.”

McLaren’s engineering director at the time was Paddy Lowe, whose recent spell at Williams appeared to be… under-performing.

Meanwhile, the denial at McLaren about their chassis performance continued up until last year. Then, it became crystal clear that blaming all their problems on Honda engines wasn’t going to wash.

I’ve written many times about how McLaren’s (and Williams’) problems go back many years. This new insight gives us a clue that senior figures were beginning to cotton onto that as early as 2009.

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Spangle (2019 expanded live version)Seefeel

Spangle (2019 expanded live version) cover

A reworking of Seefeel’s classic 1994 track Spangle, promoting the group’s upcoming tour of North America.

It’s great to have Seefeel back in action again. Their music was a little before my time, but I relished discovering it a few years later. It seems cutting-edge for the period — clearly influenced by shoegaze, but with a fizzing techno sensibility. It’s a combination that wouldn’t have been possible before, and wouldn’t have been thought of after.

Also check out Autechre’s (released in 2003, but presumably made in 1994) remix of the original, which gives it a brooding dark ambient vibe that could pass as a lost track from Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume Ⅱ.

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Marry data science with user research — ethical design depends on itTony Ho Trandscout

Illustration of Ovetta Sampson

Why do unethical products keep being designed? According to Ovetta Sampson, it’s because of an unnecessary disconnect between user researchers and data scientists.

…it’s easier to say, “I’m just the engineer” or ”I’m just the numbers guy.” It allows us to divorce ourselves from the responsibility of what that data can do to people.

See also: ‘What’ means nothing unless you know ‘why’

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Why much of the internet is closed off to blind peopleJames JeffreyBBC News

Visually impaired person using the web

The most notable thing about this article is the sorry list of weak excuses offered up by businesses who can’t be bothered to make their websites accessible.

“…a blind person can always ring Domino’s toll-free number and order that way…”
Why should they have to?
“…there is no clear objective guidance on what constitutes an ‘accessible’ website.”
O rly?
“The online environment was never intended to be covered by the ADA…”
Says who?

How about just doing the basics that will help include your customers, and your fellow human beings?

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Photo — 2019-09-29

Queen Street Gardens (eastern district)

Since I was a child I’ve been intrigued by what lay behind the mysteriously secretive railings of Queen Street Gardens, one of Edinburgh New Town’s many private gardens.

Normally you need to be a resident of a neighbouring street to obtain a key to the gates. But for one weekend a year, on Doors Open Day, the gates are thrown open to the wider public.

Well, one of the gates is. When we arrived at the south side of Queen Street Gardens’ eastern district, we found it locked as normal. Walking further, we found a sign informing us to enter at the opposite side, at Abercromby Place. You mustn’t make it too easy to enter, after all.

Alex looking at the Nissen hut

Among the interesting things to see are the Nissen hut, originally used as a bomb shelter and now used as a shed.

Temple of Pluto

At the other end is the Temple of Pluto, a 1980s structure designed to disguise a gas pressure regulating station.

Pond in Queen Street Garden centre district

The central garden was also open. Most notable here is the pond and island, which is said to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson (who, as a child, lived on the adjacent Heriot Row) to write Treasure Island.

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The flowSimon Wilson

Self-checkout machines may seem like an easy target for critcism. But there’s a really interesting point here about what happens when people get used to a new technology, their flow changes — but the technology hasn’t updated to adapt to people’s new behaviour.

Happens all the time — people are used to these things but the machines aren’t used to what the people now do. I am here to correct the machines.

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Rent ResponsiblyVHS Head

VHS Head logo

Ten years ago today, the first VHS Head EP was released. I remember it seemed to come as a bit of a bolt from the blue. For a while it was my favourite new electronic music.

Video Club is a delightful slice of retro electronic music. Subsequent releases, though relatively scant, have explored a parallel universe consisting entirely of video nasties. VHS Head’s music is constructed from samples taken from VHS cassettes.

Video Club packaging

As is customary for releases on Skam Records, it includes a braille strip. But a novel addition was the golden Video Club membership card.

Be kind and rewind.

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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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