Archive — Digital
What’s worse than design by committee? Design system by committee.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Photo — 2018-11-21
I’ve been writing an article that I’ve been thinking about for well over a year. Upon writing it, it’s turned out to be surprisingly short. So I turned to my two favourite block-busters — and they both told me to do things I was thinking about doing anyway.
Oblique Strategies told me to tidy up.
Blockbox said write it on a train.
Stop building for San Francisco
Realising that forcing websites to go HTTPS makes them more inaccessible for people with poorer connections was a penny dropping moment for me.
But this article takes the argument a bit broader.
First of all, you need to understand who your audience is, as people. If they’re genuinely wealthy people in a first world city, then you do you. But for people in rural areas, or countries with less of a solid internet infrastructure, failing to take these restrictions into account will limit your potential to grow. If you’re not building something that is accessible to your audience, you’re not building a solution for them at all.
You ≠ user.
Sara Soueidan on why you should just write, regardless of what the voice in your head may be telling you.
Start a blog and publish your writings there. Don’t think about whether or not people will like or read your articles — just give them a home and put them out there.
Most popular blogs I know started out as a series of articles that were written for the authors themselves, as a way to document their process and progress for their future selves to reference when they needed to.
Like Sara, I have found it difficult at times over the years to publish stuff to my blog, out of fear that it wouldn’t be good enough.
Over this past year I have committed to publishing something every day. It is not always high-quality. But doing so has been good for me, and has achieved most of what I had hoped for.
Photo — 2018-09-15
The new Formula 1 timing app is comically bad. Even on quite a large screen, it only shows 10 drivers — at a gigantic font size. Meanwhile, the live driver tracker is juddery and completely unusable.
But hey, I guess it uses Sean Bratches’ new fonts.
The old app wasn’t perfect, but at least it gave you all the information you needed to follow a session, and the driver tracker was usable.
It’s difficult to believe Liberty Media did any usability testing with any F1 fans before unleashing this style-over-substance atrocity.
Using contractions could be making your writing inaccessible
We found that some of these users did not understand sentences that had negative contractions in them (negative contractions are words like ‘can’t’, ‘won’t’, ‘don’t’). They interpreted the sentence without inferring the ‘not’.
I have been in two minds about using contractions for a while. On the one hand, avoiding contractions does seem to reduce ambiguity. But at the same time it can make your writing seem stilted and overly-formal.
As always with writing style, there will be no true answer, and the right way forward will depend on the circumstances. But if in doubt, it is worth considering avoiding contractions.
Designers are defining usability too narrowly
Another call on designers to think more widely when they are working on digital products. Khoi Vinh saw a Nielsen Norman Group report on best practice on websites aimed at children — but he felt the report focused too narrowly on usability.
I don’t dispute the findings at all. But it’s disturbing that the report focuses exclusively on usability recommendations, on the executional aspect of creating digital products for kids. There’s not a single line, much less a section, that cares to examine how design impacts the well-being of children…
We’re moving past the stage in the evolution of our craft when we can safely consider its practice to be neutral, to be without inherent virtue or without inherent vice. At some point, making it easier and easier to pull the handle on a slot machine reflects on the intentions of the designer of that experience.
Platforms, agile, trust, teams and werewolves
Sometimes you go to conferences or meetups and they feel like a bit of a chore. You end up listening to a lot of PR spin from people who only want to share the best good news they’ve got. They’re usually under pressure to show their best side, and to sell their own success. We get why that happens, but it can be a dull experience if you’re in the audience.
This point from Giles Turnbull at Public Digital chimes with something that has been on my mind a bit recently.
People often talk about “failing fast” or being “unafraid to fail”. But those same people are often suspiciously unwilling to speak about their failures.
In a way that is understandable. But it would be good to hear more people genuinely opening up about the things that have gone wrong. Don’t just constantly trumpet the things that are going great (or the things that aren’t going great, but you say they are). If it’s true that you learn from failure, help others by sharing that — as well as your success stories.
Designing the UI of Google Translate
I’m not too keen on user interface design showcases, because they usually boil down to: “look me make shiny thing”. But I really enjoyed this case study of how Google Translate redesigned their interface to make people more aware of some of the app’s most useful features.
Guardian Media Group digital revenues outstrip print for first time
The company’s annual report, which covers the 12 months to April 2018, shows the Guardian website attracted an average of 155m monthly unique browsers, up from 140m the year before, with an increased focus on retaining regular readers rather than chasing traffic by going viral on social networks.
Digital revenues — which include reader contributions and online advertising income — grew 15% to £108.6m, as income from the print newspaper and events business fell by 10% to £107.5m.
Could it be that — shock horror — focusing on quality rather than vapid clickbait is the sustainable business model journalism was looking for all along?
5 lessons from beyond the polar bear
How to write a problem statement
The generous act of tunking
We found out that tunking (pronounced “toonking”) is a word this team uses for blunt critique, made with the intentions of the people on the receiving end uppermost in mind. It’s honest feedback.
The people doing the tunking don’t hold back. They say what they really think. They do this because they want the people being tunked to succeed.
I really like this. And it’s important to appreciate that giving honest feedback can be just as difficult as receiving it, if not more so.
The rise of business bullshit — and how we can fight it
The modern organisation is obsessive about collaboration and consultation – but encouraging everyone’s opinions on everything invites bullshit.
Social media should have taught us by now that more opinions aren’t necessarily better…
The same applies to work. More consultation = more bullshit.
This is so true. Increasingly, I find myself feeling exasperated if I’m asked the provide an opinion on something I have no evidence about. We are often pressurised into giving opinions — “you’re supposed to be the expert”.
Baseless opinions fly around left, right and centre in any workplace. The last thing the world needs is another middle class dude like me with yet another opinion.
Let’s find the evidence instead.
The problem of zero and one
Excellent piece by Wojtek Kutyla on why UX needs to get out of its comfort zone, and an excessive focus on technology — and the temptation to make binary declarations.
We are all reasonable creatures and we know how to seek rationale when we’re dealing with daily tasks. If we’re hungry, we’ll ask ourselves: “What do I want to eat? Eggs? Avocado? Or a burger?”. If we’re planning to buy a new car, we’ll consider it carefully, basing our ultimate choice on how functional the vehicle is and whether we can afford it.
Yet, when faced with a design problem in a professional setting we’d often go for a solution that does nothing else but fulfils a set of requirements based on assumed values communicated by stakeholders. All too seldom we’re doubting their choices and ask “what’s the rationale — where did this come from?”. Perhaps we should start doing that?
The problem with professionals
Paul Taylor argues that the professional class will bring about its own demise. He notes that organisations appear to be becoming more, not less, siloed (“whole sectors are still just talking to themselves”). Moreover, this “disconnection” is visible to the general public, who catch glimpses of this behaviour on social media.
A couple of weeks ago I was on holiday flicking through Instagram. By complete chance, the algorithm had placed two photographs directly above each other.
- Firstly was the imposing black husk of Grenfell Tower – a monument to the dead and ignored.
- Next to it was a picture from a sector awards ceremony, with a champagne bottle placed in front of some happy smiling ‘professionals’, celebrating how good we are at engaging communities.
Good writing and analytics don’t mix
If you want to be a good writer then you can’t worry about the numbers. The stats, the dashboards, the faves, likes, hearts and yes, even the claps, they all lead to madness and, worst of all in my opinion, bad writing.
Recently I have been thinking a bit about what stats trackers I should be running on my blog, particularly in light of GDPR. I currently run three, and I wonder if I should cut this back.
Robin Rendle’s blog post has got me wondering further if it’s just a bad idea to worry about — or even be aware of — how many people are reading.
It’s always tempting to look at the stats. But I also know that the most-viewed posts are not the highest quality ones. So perhaps it’s better to focus on improving something other than the numbers.
See also: Escaping Twitter’s self-consciousness machine, on what happens when you remove all metrics from the Twitter interface.
The Facebook algorithm mom problem
An excellent description of one of the reasons I developed a distaste for Facebook for.
I write my content on my own personal site. I automatically syndicate it to Facebook. My mom, who seems to be on Facebook 24/7, immediately clicks “like” on the post. The Facebook algorithm immediately thinks that because my mom liked it, it must be a family related piece of content…
The algorithm narrows the presentation of the content down to very close family. Then my mom’s sister sees it and clicks “like” moments later. Now Facebook’s algorithm has created a self-fulfilling prophesy and further narrows the audience of my post. As a result, my post gets no further exposure on Facebook…
How can we incentivise the digital world to make safer services?
How regulation came to be in railways, engineering and cars — and what this tells us about how digital services may be regulated.
Trigger points for regulation have varied depending on the field, the period of history and the country. However, the thing all these triggers have in common is a change in attitudes. People need to demand change to incentivize companies to make their products and services safer.
Publishers haven’t realised just how big a deal GDPR is
With the media still consumed with scrutinising Facebook, Thomas Baekdal once again points out that it is the media who appear to be less prepared to deal with privacy trends and comply with new regulations like GDPR.
It’s interesting that Thomas Baekdal has emphasised that this is not only important for compliance. But because it is becoming a fundamental expectation.
He notes the clear changes that Google and Facebook have made in reaction to GDPR. In contrast to publishers.
I have yet to see any publisher who is actually changing what they are doing. Every single media site that I visit is still loading tons of 3rd party trackers. They are still not asking people for consent, in fact most seem to think they already have people’s consent…
Why you can’t outsource digital transformation — an open letter to the CEO of M&S
Digitally native organisations are becoming the norm, a necessity. Ring-fencing ‘digital transformation’ and throwing it over to be someone else’s problem simply won’t work.
Strategic thinking with blog posts and stickers
There has been a lot of chat recently about the apparent decline in quality of Government Digital Service (GDS) blogs. That debate isn’t explicitly mentioned here by former GDS employee Giles Turnbull. But perhaps this is the blogging equivalent of a subtweet (a subblog?).
The idea is basically this: you think out loud, on your blog, over a long period of time. At least months. Probably years. Each new post is about one thing, and tells a single story of its own, but also adds to the longer narrative. Each new post helps you tell that longer, deeper story, and becomes another linkable part of the timeline.
This also feeds into the wider commentary surrounding the apparent (or perhaps merely hoped-for) resurgence in blogging this year.
I certainly find this a useful contribution in explaining the value of blogging. It must not be run through the traditional communcations department wringer. The whole point of blogging is that is by real people (not comms people), talking about their real experiences and even their mistakes.
If you only talk blandly about your successes, you’re not really talking.
It’s the (democracy-poisoning) golden age of free speech
You may think you’ve read it all from people complaining that the likes of Facebook are threatening free speech. But this is a genuinely smart, thought-provoking article on the wide-ranging ways society need to rethink its approach towards freedom of speech.
We are particularly susceptible to glimmers of novelty, messages of affirmation and belonging, and messages of outrage toward perceived enemies. These kinds of messages are to human community what salt, sugar, and fat are to the human appetite. And Facebook gorges us on them.
I have thought before that we need to start thinking about ‘eating your digital greens’. Which means being wary of processed content (processed through an algorithm, that is), and ensuring you seek out a balanced diet of content from different sources and perspectives.
I’m having a ‘digital transformation’ right now
This is slightly inflammatory, but contains a lot of truth.
I was particularly struck by this point:
You will also find lots of high-level pieces about why ‘Digital Transformation’ matters — but very little in the way of relevant, reference-able case studies and practical advice about how to do it.
Although I would give mention to the case studies outlined in the New Reality.
People and tooling
On the increasingly complex nature of design and development.
The way we build for the web right now feels problematic in so many ways. Instead of welcoming everyone from our teams with their various skills, we create layers of complexity that shut many out.
I sense this is deliberate, albeit in a subtly unconscious way. There is a culture among some in technology that seeks to belittle and exclude those who find complicated things intimidating. So development has grown in complexity over time, probably needlessly so.
If you’re still shying away from using technology to improve customer experience – you’re doomed
Some observations from Paul Taylor on digital experience in Myanmar, where internet usage has skyrocketed recently.
For three weeks I’ve not dealt with any paper, any spreadsheets, and very few emails. I’ve negotiated seven hotels, seven flights, taxi’s and boat trips through a mix of apps, increasingly powered by automation and artificial intelligence.
In some respects coming home seems like arriving in the third world, rather than coming from it.
It reminds me of stories about smartphone usage in China, which is totally different to the west.
Westerners try to use their phones like tiny PCs. But because many people in developing countries didn’t have widespread access to PC, they don’t have those mental models. As such, they take fuller advantage of the capabilities of modern mobile devices.
There is so much positivity in the digital world of media
As ever, Thomas Baekdal is brilliant and insightful on where traditional media companies are getting it so wrong. He compares the consistently negative focus of news outlets to successful YouTubers, all of whom are filled with “excitement and positivity”.
[I]t makes traditional journalists appear reactive, while digital natives appear proactive…
You can’t just be negative. You also have to give your readers hope and invite them to join you on a journey into a better future.
Language in web teams
Content designer Sarah Richards shares an amusing story of a technique she has used to help people from different disciplines and backgrounds who have been talking at cross-purposes.
We are meant to be content and communication experts. But we often see people putting little effort into how they communicate internally, or even within their own teams.
Accessibility according to actual people with disabilities
We often hear about the theory of accessibility in design. But we know that the reality can often be different.
So it’s great to see such a comprehensive run-down of actual digital accessibility complaints from people with disabilities.
The article ends with a sage point:
Basically everything that people with disabilities comment on are things that annoy everyone, so fixing these issues makes your interface better for all users!
The significance of the Twitter archive at the Library of Congress
The Library of Congress has now stopped preserving all public tweets. In the words of Dan Cohen in this article, “The Twitter archive may not be the record of our humanity that we wanted, but it’s the record we have.”
I am amused at the idea of future historians having a highly detailed record of everything on Twitter up to the year Donald Trump got elected, and the year before Brexit is due to happen. What a cliffhanger.
“Username or password incorrect” is bullshit
Predictions for digital and social marketing in 2018
Gary Andrews with some thoughts on what we might see in the coming year in the digital and marketing worlds.
There are lots of astute points here, not least on the hot potato of the moment: relationship between the tech giants and publishers.
One phrase that has been bandied around a lot towards the end of 2017 has been from publishers proclaiming their “pivot to readers”. At a basic level, this is the publisher’s way of saying we’ll no longer be beholden to platforms like Facebook and Google and will concentrate on building our own brand through focusing on our core readership instead.
The great emoji debate
The Economist considers whether the Unicode consortium is wasting its time trying to standardise emoji when it could be focusing on “more scholarly matters” such as adding characters from ancient scripts.
Given the popularity — almost the ubiquity — of emoji in modern-day popular culture, I would argue that standardising this form of communication is much more important than trying to digitise seldom-used or dead scripts. Even if that means standardising a frowning pile of poo.
Sticks in the ground for public services
You know I love a bit of brutalism. Well here, Ben Holliday draws a comparison between civic architecture of the mid-20th century, and modern-day digital local services.
Many of these buildings are now disused or in different states of disrepair. It’s an important reminder. The fact is, no matter how bold you set out to be. No matter how big or successfully your original statement of intent, eventually the roof will start to leak.
Buildings, just like ideas, need maintenance. They fall into disrepair over time.
I have written a few times before about the parallels I see between architecture and digital services. It’s well worth learning the lessons from the past and applying them to our own projects.
I made my shed the top rated restaurant on TripAdvisor
Brilliantly entertaining article by someone who managed to game TripAdvisor into ranking his fake establishment as the number one restaurant in London.
When he staged a deliberately-awful opening night, some of the patrons asked to come again.
The Shed at Dulwich has suddenly become appealing. How?
I realise what it is: the appointments, lack of address and general exclusivity of this place is so alluring that people can’t see sense.
There’s a digital media crash. But no one will say it
A huge, huge, huge amount of digital media is funded by venture capital…
The big picture is that Problem #1 (too many publications) and Problem #2 (platform monopolies) have catalyzed together to create Problem #3 (investors realize they were investing in a mirage and don’t want to invest any more).
Designers, it’s time to move slowly and fix things
Another reflection on how the culture of tech and design probably needs to change, this time from Basecamp product designer Jonas Downey.
Designers and programmers are great at inventing software… Unfortunately we’re not nearly as obsessed with what happens after that, when people integrate our products into the real world. They use our stuff and it takes on a life of its own. Then we move on to making the next thing. We’re builders, not sociologists.
RSS: there’s nothing better
This article summarises why social media services like Facebook and Twitter are a totally inadequate way of receiving updates from blogs and other websites. We had the perfect system all along: RSS.
Yes, the technology is dated, but it remains the best at what it does and isn’t closed source or tied to some Silicon Valley company. It still works, is widely supported and does what it does better than any alternative that’s come out since. Sometimes, newer isn’t better. Sometimes the problem has already been solved. No blog or news website should be too new or too minimal to support RSS.