Archive — Personal

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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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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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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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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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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Note — 2019-08-02

My Omnichord normally gathers dust in the corner of a room. So when someone retweeted into my timeline Karine Polwart asking if anyone in Edinburgh had an Omnichord she could borrow for some filming, I was happy to help, and to see the Omnichord out of its case for a change!

It makes its little appearance in this video for her cover of Chance by the Big Country.

This is part of her new album of Scottish covers, Scottish Songbook. It’s out today on lovely red vinyl.

My name on the back sleeve of Scottish Songbook

I had always wondered what it would take to get a ‘thank you’ on the back of an album. Now I know. 🙂

Hopefully one day I’ll get round to playing the Omnichord more often myself…

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The one thing about your spouse’s personality that really affects your careerAndrew O’ConnellHarvard Business Review

Two pairs of sandals

It has been found that having a conscientious spouse helps lead to an increase in income, number of promotions and job satisfaction. Why?

First, conscientious spouses handle a lot of household tasks, freeing employees to concentrate on work (“When you can depend on someone, it takes pressure off of you,” Solomon told me).

Or, put another way, if someone else is doing all the dirty work at home, it gives you the privilege to focus on your career.

I wonder if there’s research to say what the effect is if both people in a relationship share household duties equally. Hopefully if both partners are conscientious, both feel the benefits in their careers.

Support each other. Teamwork! 🐌🐢

You can support your spouse in supporting you. If you depend on his or her reliability, diligence, and goal orientation, don’t take those traits for granted. Maybe you’ve been standing heroically at the bow for so long that you’ve forgotten how much effort it takes to row. So sit down and row for a while.

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Creating the perfect UX workshop bag@kyecassUX Collective

✔️ Love stationery
✔️ Love workshops

This is a great guide to workshop essentials. I’m impressed that this kit contains a wider variety of materials, and yet seems so much smaller than the workshop bag we use at work. Maybe we rely too much on mountains of sticky notes!

I’d be tempted to add planning poker cards to this list. Planning poker is usually thought of as a technique for estimating work in agile projects. But it can also be used as a prioritisation technique in workshops.

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Top tasks surveys have identified what really matters to students using LearnWebsite and Communications Blog

Pie chart of students' top tasks in Learn

As part of our programme of user research in support of the Learn Foundations project, we have carried out a top tasks survey to understand what students need when accessing course materials online.

What we found was that students value three items much more than everything else. Those items are all to do with lectures.

See the full post to find out more.

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The elements of a better user experience in LearnWebsite and Communications Blog

The sketch that started it all

As part of the Learn Foundations project, we have carried out a programme of quantitative research to ensure a user-centred approach to solution development.

The Learn Foundations project team wanted to develop a new template using a user-centred approach. This template would be designed to introduce more consistency between different courses in Learn. But it also had to support a diverse variety of needs across different courses, supporting different schools, colleges and teaching needs. It also had to be developed quickly.

We took inspiration from a classic user experience diagram to ensure this new template could be built on firm foundations.

This post introduces the steps we took. Forthcoming posts will describe each step in more detail and some of our key findings.

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Interviews with students to understand users’ needs and contexts around LearnWebsite and Communications Blog

Foam board summarising insights from interviews with students

Summarising the key findings from a set of user interviews I conducted with students on their needs around accessing course materials digitally. Just one of the strands of the Learn Foundations project, which I still have much more to write about.

After analysing and synthesising the insights gathered through the interviews, we built up a picture of how and why students’ experience with Learn varies throughout the year as students attempt to complete different tasks. This is presented as a semester in the life of students using Learn.

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The RapanthemModeselektor

Hello Mom! cover

In retrospect, this tune (from 2005) sounds a little dated. A little bit too heavy on the post-Boards of Canada glitchy hip-hop influence. Bbbbutttt… it’s still pretty good.

I remember listening to this album a lot when I was studying at the University of Edinburgh, taking lunchtime walks round the Meadows. 14 years on I find myself taking the same lunchtime walks, working for the university. Crazy days.

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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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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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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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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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Photo — 2019-03-30

Burgundy European Union passport

It just so happened that my passport needed to be renewed this month. So I’ll have this burgundy European Union document for the next 10 years.

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Photo — 2019-03-20

People affinity mapping

I had a fabulous day at the Service Design Academy bootcamp yesterday.

It’s part of the PDA in Service Design. I never thought I’d be a student again. But I’m loving the opportunity to get stuck in and get talking to like-minded peers from other organisations.

It’s great to be back in Dundee again too! Looking forward to seeing what day two has in store.

Generating ideas

Generating ideas

Distilling our ideas

Distilling our ideas

View of V&A Dundee

The view from my hotel window

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Photo — 2019-01-16

'Duncan' hen party badge

Turquoise Hexagon Dunc.

Our super talented and creative friend Lucy made these badges for guests at Alex’s hen party last weekend. I’m delighted to have got my own.

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