Archive — Technology
Back in October, I had the opportunity to attend the UCD Gathering conference, a new virtual event for practitioners of user-centred design in all its forms. Over on my work blog, I have published the first of two posts reflecting on what I learned.
This first post covers two themes:
- Being aware of bias, and other cognitive considerations
- Improving readability of content
The post also mentions my own session at the conference, about our user research into the needs of staff and students working with course materials online. The Learn Foundations project has proved fortuitous in that it has helped schools move their teaching online and prepare for hybrid teaching in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
Last month our brilliant colleague Lizzie Cass-Maran left our team after more than 10 years. In her final blog post for our team’s blog, she has written this plea to keep humans at the centre of all our decision-making.
For the past few years I’ve been working with Lizzie, I’ve always been impressed at the impact and quality of the work she has delivered in often challenging circumstances. She is a key reason why Website and Communications has such a strong user-centred culture.
Moreover, her impact stretched far beyond our own team. She influenced human-centred approaches across the entire university. She has played a genuinely leading role in our communities of practice. The effective digital content training that she has designed ensures that our content editors will continue to create well-written content that meets users’ needs.
Most recently, she did most of the heavy lifting in a project to revolutionise the university’s editorial style guide. The outcome of this is that, for the first time, we have a unified style guide that is designed for use across all content, print and digital, being managed across organisational silos.
Our team genuinely will not be the same without her.
Tomatoes are a bit of an ontological mess.
Why information architecture is difficult, explained by tomatoes — and not just the fruit/vegetable thing you might already be thinking.
Note — 2020-09-23
A highly entertaining read about how someone used a photo of a boarding pass posted by Tony Abbott on his own Instagram account to find out the former Australian prime minister’s personal details including his passport and phone number. Alex Hope embarks on an adventure to find out whether he broke the law, figure out how he can inform Tony Abbott that he knows his passport number, and let the airline know about their hair-raisingly bad information security.
My colleague Stewart Lamb Cromar has written about how a recent deterioration in his vision has impacted his work, and highlights the importance of our ongoing work around accessibility.
How about this for dystopia? MSN have replaced human news editors with a robot powered by Microsoft artificial intelligence technology. The problem is, it has already begun making racist decisions.
And then, in case you thought the story wasn’t already absurd enough, this:
In advance of the publication of this article, staff at MSN were told to expect a negative article in the Guardian about alleged racist bias in the artificial intelligence software that will soon take their jobs.
Because they are unable to stop the new robot editor selecting stories from external news sites such as the Guardian, the remaining human staff have been told to stay alert and delete a version of this article if the robot decides it is of interest and automatically publishes it on MSN.com. They have also been warned that even if they delete it, the robot editor may overrule them and attempt to publish it again.
Then the article ends on a delicious snippet — that Microsoft itself is concerned about the reputational damage this scheme will cause to its AI technology.
I’m immediately reminded of Microsoft’s disastrous Tay experiment.
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.)
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.
What’s worse than design by committee? Design system by committee.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
If you still have the Opera web browser installed anywhere, now might be the time to stop.
With its browser business in decline, cash flow deteriorating (and balance sheet cash finding its way into management’s hands…), Opera has decided to embark on a dramatic business pivot: predatory short-term lending in Africa and Asia.
The article goes on to outline evidence of some seriously dodgy practices. What a sad end to the Opera story.
Researchers at Princeton University called three of the four major [US] carriers and tried to convince customer service representatives to move phone numbers to new sim cards. Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile each received ten calls from the researchers, who posed as customers.
Astoundingly, in all 30 cases the fake customers successfully convinced the carriers to move the numbers to new sim cards.
This matters because so many other services (such as banking systems) rely on SMS for authentication. If you only need to convince one customer service representative to swap a phone number, you could potentially have access to… almost anything.
How Amazon appear to have had undue influence on the music charts. River by Ellie Goulding is this week’s number one, seemingly because Amazon have added it to their Christmas music playlists. So whenever anyone asked their new Alexa to play Christmas music, this new single got played — propelling it to number one.
This article also contains some interesting details about the pros and cons of different ways of compiling music charts in the streaming era.
If the voices of those clamouring for the charts to discriminate between “lean in” and “lean back” streams — i.e. those which the user has actively chosen to hear rather than simply being served up in a playlist — grow ever louder in the new year, then River will be held up as a shining example of why that needs to happen.
It is human nature to add things, making them more complex. This feels like you’re doing something, but actually you’re probably making the situation worse.
We see this in web design. People like adding pages to their websites because it feels productive. But actually, the most effective websites are the ones with fewer, simpler pages.
The same can be true for any design, including the way we structure our work.
We often anchor around the wrong thing. That’s why some big institutions have no chance — they are hit by random plans and transformations rather than anchoring around purpose and iteration.
A clue on how social media can be better regulated, by looking at the porn industry.
Before anything can be posted to an adult site, it must be rigorously screened to make sure it’s not opening the site up to legal liability…
“Because we’re very aggressive in our patrol of content, the criminals know not to use us.”
It suggests that major social media services can have an active moderation policy and still “survive — even thrive”.
…given some of the horrors that the existing version of Facebook has unleashed, it’s worth considering whether a version of the site that had focused more on moderation and less on rapid growth might have been better for us all.
Note — 2019-11-22
We’re looking for a University of Edinburgh PhD student intern to work with us next year. This is an exciting time to join the Website and Communications team, and an opportunity to help us improve high-profile web services like MyEd and the University website. Take a look!
Note — 2019-11-20
Playing Tetris and Snake simultaneously is fiendishly difficult.
— grgrdvrt (@grgrdvrt) November 20, 2019
A balanced piece that considers the pros and cons of Labour’s proposal to nationalise Openreach and promise free broadband for all.
What’s notable is that the only reason we’ve reached this stage is because of the utter failure of BT to do this job properly (particularly in rural areas). It is constantly being “dragged kicking and screaming” to do the basics. This has left the UK needlessly lagging behind.
Still, they’ve got the Champions League rights, huh?
Note — 2019-11-19
I was in a meeting once where someone pitched a really unrealistic idea. I don’t remember the details exactly. But let’s assume this idea depended on pigs being able to fly.
“But how will the pigs fly?”, we asked.
“Oh, we’ll have an algorithm.”
“OK… But, we don’t understand how the algorithm make the pigs fly?”
“I just said, the algorithm will sort that out.”
“But you haven’t explained how?”
“With the algorithm.”
“Algorithms can’t make pigs fly.”
She spoke to two Apple reps. Both very nice, courteous people representing an utterly broken and reprehensible system. The first person was like “I don’t know why, but I swear we’re not discriminating, IT’S JUST THE ALGORITHM”. I shit you not. “IT’S JUST THE ALGORITHM!”.
— DHH (@dhh) November 8, 2019
Don’t devolve your thinking to an algorithm.
I’m sure there’s not a perfectly innocent explanation for this.
Useful for those who like to write in plain language.
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?
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).
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?
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.
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”.
Photo — 2019-09-18
It would be great if smart replies were actually smart.
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.
Govt spox tells me this is normal and legal, the data is anonymised, and it’s only about improving the efficiency of https://t.co/SsTD9HR8RA. OK, so why is it being done now with haste, and through the no-deal XO committee? They had no answer for that. https://t.co/STansZ6V0b
— Alex Spence (@alexGspence) September 10, 2019
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.
Why “brand voice” or creativity shouldn’t stop you making your content readable and accessible.
…a brilliant brand voice isn’t brilliant if it isn’t readable and accessible to all.
What3Words may have a good publicity operation, but as Terence Eden points out here, there are many problems with it. It’s not open, it’s difficult to work across languages, and at times it’s even culturally insensitive.
Note — 2019-08-13
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.
* Yes, that was just an excuse to use the ½ glyph.
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.