Archive — Technology

Coding is for everyone — as long as you speak EnglishGretchen McCullochWired

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?

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PricksGescom

MiniDisc artwork (CD version)

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.

MiniDisc original artwork

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.

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Join our team as a Content DesignerWebsite and Communications Blog

View of Edinburgh Castle from our office

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.

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Opera: Phantom of the TurnaroundHindenburg Research

Screenshot of one of Opera's predatory loan apps from the Google Play store

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.

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New sim swap hacks highlight carriers’ wobbly securityMartha DegrasseLight Reading

Diagram demonstrating how the attack works

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.

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Week ending 2 January 2020James MastertonChart Watch UK

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.

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The complex task of simplicityPaul Taylor

Sainsbury's Basics food packaging - washing powder, flower, canned tomatoes

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.

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Why xHamster is so much better at content moderation than FacebookLux AlptraumOneZero

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.

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Labour’s broadband plan won’t work — but let’s have a national debate to find a plan that doesBryan GlickComputer Weekly Editor’s Blog

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?

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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.”

“Algorithm!”

Don’t devolve your thinking to an algorithm.

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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Apple contractors ‘regularly hear confidential details’ on Siri recordingsAlex HernThe Guardian

Apple device with Siri activated

Apple contractors regularly hear confidential medical information, drug deals, and recordings of couples having sex, as part of their job providing quality control, or “grading”, the company’s Siri voice assistant, the Guardian has learned.

Looks like Apple’s big claims on privacy are — like most things from Apple — a superficial marketing line.

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Building a design team from scratch in a large and complex organisationSimon Dixon

I especially like the points this article makes about why design needs to go beyond digital.

Even though I have worked primarily in digital teams, I have always believed in making things better not just digital. In health especially, we need to remember that people are complex human beings in a whole variety of circumstances and not simply a collection of user needs.

More food for thought as I begin thinking more about how we need to move beyond individual user needs and design for something that goes beyond that.

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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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How we tweet about BrexitJon WorthEuroblog

Person screaming

Jon Worth has noticed that the wrong sort of thing gets traction on Twitter. This isn’t a new insight, of course — and it’s not just about Brexit. But he suggests a solution.

Make judicious use of Twitter lists. Retweet sensible stuff instead of confirmation bias sustaining content. Retweet people who themselves have a small audience, and could do with more exposure.

I’ve often thought of this like eating your greens. I’ve found myself unfollowing people I agree with, if they have the wrong tone and a myopic viewpoint. I’d also suggest actively looking to follow people with different perspectives or those you disagree with. Engage with people who contribute meaningfully and respectfully.

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Unraveling the jpegOmar ShehataParametric Press

A fascinating look at how jpeg compression works, with lots of interactive examples you can play with.

It’s worth learning about not just because it’s important to understand the technology we all use everyday, but also because, as we unravel the layers of compression, we learn a bit about perception and vision, and about what details our eyes are most sensitive to.

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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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Own it!Matt JukesNotbinary

On the incredible story about Hertz suing Accenture for a failed “digital transformation project”.

Alarm bells ring at the best of times when website redesigns are described as “digital transformation”. But to then completely outsource the product owner role — to the same management consultancy firm that was carrying out the redesign — underlines just how much the top brass seemingly didn’t get it.

Particularly important is this:

The private sector is NOT intrinsically better at these things than the public sector. Occasions like this and the TSB meltdown should never be celebrated but should surely be greeted by a wry smile by those of us who have been hearing about the incompetence of public service digital for years from some corners — and particularly why there was never any need to bring things in-house because all the expertise was with the big suppliers.

I would argue that this isn’t even just about digital. The idea that public sector organisations are inherently worse at anything than the private sector has long been spurious. Large organisations perhaps do find certain things more difficult — but in both the public and private sector.

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Scapegoating user experience designKhoi VinhSubtraction

Stylised photo of a Nest camera

An article published yesterday in The Washington Post demonstrates the danger of design’s failure to broaden popular understanding of our craft.

The article pinpoints Nest’s focus on reducing friction as the reason for their cameras’ weak security.

Khoi Vinh points out that…

…the concept of user experience writ large is not to blame here; what’s actually at fault is bad user experience practice.

The point being that good security is fundamental to good user experience. As any good designer would know, they are not in conflict. Quite the opposite, in fact.

It strikes me that Nest are using ‘reducing friction’ as a poor excuse for not implementing better security. I’m sure they’re not the only ones guilty of this.

On another point, this article got me thinking about journalism. Khoi Vinh refuses to blame the Washington Post’s perspective on “lazy journalism”, perhaps correctly.

But any time I read a mainstream/non-specialist journalist write about a topic I know a little about (motorsport, the web, whatever), I’m always astonished at how many basic errors are made. It’s a challenge if designers want the help of journalism when “explaining what it is that we do to the world at large.”

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Want to see what one digital future for newspapers looks like? Look at The Guardian, which isn’t losing money anymoreJoshua BentonNieman Journalism Lab

"The Guardian (actually makes money now)"

How the Guardian finally started making a profit, in three steps.

With a functionally infinite supply of free news available, the relationship your reader has to you has to be a lot more like the one public radio listeners have with their favorite station. They’re not buying access; they’re supporting a cause.

I’d also add that the Guardian has one major advantage over almost every other publisher in the world. They uniquely decided not to go down the rabbit hole of autoplaying videos, pop-up adverts, and other infuriating ways of getting in the way of what the readers actually came for.

This week I visited the Scotsman website, and one of the ads inserted a nasty redirect that my browser told me was taking me to an untrustworthy site. There are lots of news sites that I simply can’t trust for this reason. The Guardian is one I can still trust.

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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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Apple cracks down on apps that fight iPhone addictionJack NicasThe New York Times

Apple logo eating app icons in the style of Pac-Man

Apple has been making it harder for people to use apps that help people spend less time on their iPhones. And they’ve not been making it clear why. Apple have their own tool, but…

He has found Apple’s tool more complicated and less restrictive. His children have already found workarounds to Apple’s web-filtering tool and, unlike the apps he had used, it has no kill switch to quickly disable certain apps on their phones, Mr. Chantry said.

“It didn’t make managing these new digital threats any easier,” he said. “It actually made it more difficult.”

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15 months of fresh hell inside FacebookNicholas Thompson and Fred VogelsteinWired

Mark Zuckerberg surrounded by Facebook icons

I enjoy Wired’s periodic long articles about Facebook. They avoid the shrillness that most media outlets exhibit when writing or talking about Facebook. This article is all the more powerful for it. And unlike many self-publicists who spend a lot of time writing basic stuff about Facebook and acting as though they’ve discovered the story of the decade, this contains genuine insights and new information.

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The privilege of free time in Open SourceDries Buytaert

Caption: "Free time to contribute is a privilege."

Dries Buytaert makes a very good point here. Time is the scarcest resource we have. This is making open source a closed shop.

Today, I’ve come to understand that inequality makes it difficult for underrepresented groups to have the “free time” it takes to contribute to Open Source.

He suggests some ways open source communities could take action on this.

Overall, being kinder, more patient and more supportive to others could go a long way in welcoming more people to Open Source.

The culture of coding seems nasty generally. I’m not sure if it’s specifically a problem with open source as opposed to developers generally.

But I always found it odd how unwelcoming, patronising and generally unhelpful people in open source communities (such as WordPress support forums) can sometimes be. Sometimes it doesn’t seem very open at all.

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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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People won’t stop staring at their phones, so a Dutch town put traffic lights on the groundNeha Thirani BagriQuartz

Experimental Dutch traffic crossing

An interesting experiment to place pedestrian crossing signals on the ground, “where everyone is already looking”. The Netherlands seems to be the place for experimental road safety design (see also: the squareabout).

This has got to be an improvement on the modern fad of placing pedestrian crossing signals at chest height to the side, where they simply get blocked by other people, rather than across the road where everyone can see it.

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