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Archive — Technology
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.
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.
There’s a running theme here: unnecessarily expensive sh!t that almost no-one wants.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Note — 2019-05-18
Blogs that don’t have RSS feeds: Why?!
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A sobering summary of WebAIM’s accessibility analysis of the top 1 million homepages. In short, the picture is much worse than we might have hoped or expected.
…we’ve created a web that’s actively excluding people, and at a vast, terrible scale. We need to meditate on that.
Today the world marks the 30th birthday of the web. I could have said ‘celebrates’ instead of ‘marks’. But despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that it’s the most revolutionary advance in communications of our lifetime, the mood seems reflective rather than celebratory. Read full articleComment
Note — 2019-03-06
I hate to be that guy, but the latest update to the Pocket Casts Android app has completely destroyed it.
Overnight, the player widget was erased. But worse still, all the playlists I have created have disappeared and there appears to be no way of recreating them. The playlists feature has vanished. There is a mysterious new ‘Filters’ option that I can’t make head nor tail of. Whenever I try to create a new filter, it crashes.
I’d move to Google Podcasts, but that doesn’t support playlists either… Ugh.
Why it’s wrong and perhaps even dangerous to expect “raw data” to be neutral and strictly factual.
How data are construed, recorded, and collected is the result of human decisions — decisions about what exactly to measure, when and where to do so, and by what methods. Inevitably, what gets measured and recorded has an impact on the conclusions that are drawn.
A more complicated web — Christian Heilmann
A useful explanation as to why we can’t return to “a simpler web” that enabled anyone to easily become a publisher.
What we consider a way to express ourselves on the web – our personal web site – is a welcome opportunity for attackers… [I]t can be recruited as a part of a botnet or to store illegal and malicious content for re-distribution.
So, to me, there is no such thing as going back to the good old web where everything was simple. It never was. What we need now to match the siren call of closed garden publishers is making it easier to publish on the web. And to control your data and protect the one of your users. This isn’t a technical problem – it is one of user interfaces, services and tools that make the new complexity of the web manageable.
I’m not sure I fully agree with (or even understand) his proposed way forward. But it’s useful to think about how we can balance the desire to encourage self-publishing with fully robust, secure solutions. The game changed long ago.
Putting into economic terms the distinction between blogging and social media, and articulating what we have lost through the decline of blogging.
If you want attention for your blog you have to earn it through a combination of quality, in the sense that you’re producing something valuable for your readers, and trust, in the sense that you’ve produced enough good stuff over time to establish a good reputation with the fellow bloggers whose links will help grow your audience.
I first realised this about blogging when it became clear that comments sections on major websites were almost always cesspits. People in comments sections are generally attempting to freeride on the quality of the website they are posting on.
Bloggers, on the other hand, really need to be high-quality to get any sort of audience at all. That makes blogs generally good.
Social media is quite the opposite. To start getting traction on social media, the threshold is rather low. In fact, often, lower quality works better.
Link via Khürt Williams
Automated front-end development: A critique — Paul Robert Lloyd
A compelling 120-word critique regarding automated front-end development, as provided by a class attribute inside this simple Squarespace template…
It could almost be a dada poem.
Why big companies squander brilliant ideas — Tim Harford
How inflexible organisational structure could be one of the main inhibitors of innovation. This article is full of fascinating examples, but I found the Sony example the most striking.
…the silo that produced the PlayStation had almost nothing to do with the silo that produced portable CD players. The Memory Stick Walkman was like the tank: it didn’t fit neatly into any category. To be a success, the silos that had been designed to work separately would have to work together. That required an architectural change that Sony tried but failed to achieve.
Seemingly, there’s no straightforward answer to this:
Kodak’s position may well have been impossible, no matter what managers had done. If so, the most profitable response would have been to vanish gracefully.
For owners of Amazon’s Ring security cameras, strangers may have been watching — Sam Biddle, the Intercept
This is jaw-dropping stuff about lacklustre security practices at Ring, the smart doorbell manufacturers — as well as a story about rather lacklustre technology problems. Perhaps I’m naive, but I’m amazed that unencrypted live video footage is available to Ring employees at all. It makes me think twice about internet of things gadgets.