Archive — Technology
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.
No, we don’t really care about your privacy
“We value your privacy” have been the hollowest words of 2018. I am instantly suspicious of any website that displays a flashy pop-up about privacy. Like a small man with a fancy car, it looks like they’re compensating for something.
It’s what happens when you want to be seen to be GDPR compliant, rather than actually GDPR compliant.
This post really underlines how media companies have taken the web in totally the wrong direction.
It shows how media organisations like CNN and NPR brought out lightweight “text only” versions of their websites to help hurricane-stricken areas with low bandwidth.
…in some aspects, they are actually better than the original.
Most importantly, it’s user friendly. People get what they came for (the news) and are able to accomplish their tasks.
It reminds me of the GDPR compliant version of the USA Today website, which many noted was actually a far better experience than the standard version that was filled with trackers and ads.
Because of #GDPR, USA Today decided to run a separate version of their website for EU users, which has all the tracking scripts and ads removed. The site seemed very fast, so I did a performance audit. How fast the internet could be without all the junk! 🙄
5.2MB → 500KB pic.twitter.com/xwSqqsQR3s
— Marcel Freinbichler (@fr3ino) May 26, 2018
Think how brilliant the web could be again, if people removed all the crap from their pages and focused on what users actually need.
I had forgotten (or never realised) that ‘people you may know’ was originally a LinkedIn feature before Facebook poached it. This article covers how the shady world of shadow profiles enabled Facebook to turn this cute idea into something spooky.
If Facebook sees an email address or a phone number for you in someone else’s address book, it will attach it to your account as “shadow” contact information that you can’t see or access.
That means Facebook knows your work email address, even if you never provided it to Facebook, and can recommend you friend people you’ve corresponded with from that address. It means when you sign up for Facebook for the very first time, it knows right away “who all your friends are.” And it means that exchanging phone numbers with someone, say at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, will result in your not being anonymous for long.
A fascinating article about the various dirty tricks and scams that independent retailers are playing on each other on Amazon Marketplace.
For sellers, Amazon is a quasi-state. They rely on its infrastructure — its warehouses, shipping network, financial systems, and portal to millions of customers — and pay taxes in the form of fees. They also live in terror of its rules, which often change and are harshly enforced…
Sellers are more worried about a case being opened on Amazon than in actual court…
How technology affects the way we write — but not necessarily in the ways we expect. I was particularly struck by the idea that one of the biggest changes has been how the “distinction between revision and composition began to erode entirely” with the advent of computers.
Making the case that, sometimes, friction in design is a good thing.
Often, invoking the concept of friction is a useful way to obscure some larger, less savory goal. For Facebook, “frictionless sharing” was a thinly veiled cover for the company’s true goal of getting users to post more often, and increasing the amount of data available for ad targeting. For YouTube, auto-playing videos have sharply increased view time, thereby increasing the platform’s profitability. And for Amazon, tools like one-click ordering have created a stunningly efficient machine for commerce and consumption.
Why makers write
This is a bit of a sales pitch, but it is a good piece on the importance of writing regularly.
Deep understanding is necessary for makers. Understanding develops the perspective and conviction needed for bringing products to market. This is why blog-first startups are viable. Writing forces a maker to deeply understand the value they intend to bring into the world.
I always enjoy Justin O’Beirne’s analysis of how Google Maps and Apple Maps are evolving.
In this post, Justin considers an Apple Maps update that appears to have an insane level of detail. But the further you read, the worse it becomes. The new map has taken Apple four years to make, and covers just 3.1% of the US (an area around — you guessed it — San Francisco).
I risk spoiling the article here. But essentially, a large number of unusual errors and inconsistencies in the map point to much of the new data being manually created.
It all makes me wonder what the point is of having this sort of detail. A picture of a baseball field that the map doesn’t recognise as a baseball field strikes me as pointless. It’s little more than a heavily compressed, coarse vector graphic version of a satellite map. It tells you nothing that the satellite photo couldn’t.
In other words, this superficially impressive update is just that — superficial. Well, I guess it’s Apple after all…
Keeping it weird
Or, more accurately, stopping it being weird. This refers to the problem that most psychology research is conducted on people that are western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.
Tim Kadlec considers the implication this has on our understanding of how people use the web.
We’ve known for a while that the worldwide web was becoming increasingly that: worldwide. As we try to reach people in different parts of the globe with very different daily realities, we have to be willing to rethink our assumptions. We have to be willing to revisit our research and findings with fresh eyes so that we can see what holds true, what doesn’t, and where.
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.
After a decade (yes, a decade!) of BadgerGP.com we’re closing down after the 2018 season.
One of the first — and best — Formula 1 blogs is closing its doors.
In 2010, I was honoured to be asked if I would like to contribute an article to BadgerGP. The outcome was, The Vettel-Webber backlash: Are Red Bull losing their Fizz?
As noted by the F1 Broadcasting Blog on Twitter, it’s a shame to see another independent motorsport website close.
Thanks to Adam Le Feuvre, and everyone involved with F1 Badger and BadgerGP over the years.
A reassuring update from Flickr, following the announcement that free accounts will have their photos deleted. They have now confirmed that photos uploaded under Creative Commons licenses will not be deleted.
Since (I think) I uploaded everything under Creative Commons, this means my photos are safe on Flickr. So this is something.
Photo — 2018-11-09
It’s a dream come true — I’ve finally won HQ Trivia.
…But it was a true team effort thanks to the help of Rebecca, Alex, Louise and Jamie. The drinks are on me… Which leaves me about a tenner out of pocket.
The BBC Domesday Project
A fascinating long article on the BBC Domesday Project from 1986. This huge project celebrated the 900th anniversary of the Domesday book, with an ambitious modern-day take on documenting all of Britain.
The technology was so unique that became obsolete almost immediately. It required a special LaserDisc player connected to a BBC Master computer with a special controller. The price tag put it out of reach of almost everyone, even schools and libraries.
It’s a prime example of the challenges of digital preservation.
Moreover, copyright issues — as well as the sheer volume of content — have raised questions over whether some the content could ever be used again. It is certainly difficult to replicate the original experience (although a few YouTube videos give a flavour).
This article goes into some of the thinking behind the technology decisions, and makes a valiant case that the Domesday Project is not a failure, as some like to think of it.
The FAQ as advice column
FAQ sections are derided by most content designers, myself included. But (as usual) it is not necessarily the format itself that’s the problem. Normally, the real problem is bad implementation.
This piece by Caroline Roberts makes a provocative case in favour of FAQs, by comparing them with advice columns.
The FAQ structure has held up for so long because it is a brilliant pattern. Think the Socratic method. Or the catechism. Or Usenet. Or “FAQs about FAQs.” Or — you guessed it — “Dear Prudence,” “Dear Sugar,” or any other popular advice column. Users will always have questions, and they will always want answers.
What makes FAQs troublesome is incorrect or lazy use. Lisa Wright has already shared what not to do, but perhaps the best way to start an FAQ is to choose each question with great care. For example, advice columnists spend plenty of time selecting what questions they will answer each week.
The Apple Podcasts Chart is screwed. How should we replace it?
This article by James Cridland lays bare just how widespread the gaming of Apple’s podcasts chart is.
I have heard presenters pleading with their listeners to unsubscribe, then resubscribe to help improve their position in the chart. Apparently it works.
What I don’t understand is why Apple let this happen? I’m sure it’s not an easy problem to fix. But it surely can’t be as hard as penalising dodgy SEO tactics or email spam filters. What’s in it for Apple?
Google is undermining one big reason why people flocked to Gmail in the first place
Jordan Novet wonders why Google hasn’t updated storage limits for years.
One reason [Gmail] was revolutionary was its gigabyte of free storage space — the idea being that you wouldn’t have to constantly be deleting email in order to keep things going.
But today, I’m in a jam. I’ve run out of space across Gmail, the Google Drive storage service and the Google Photos app.
It’s a problem I felt, until I started compressing photos in Google Photos (and I haven’t genuinely noticed a downside of compressing them).
Once upon a time it felt like storage would never be an issue. Charles Arthur noted that perhaps the world is running out of storage. “Wouldn’t that be a thing? No room left on the internet.”
Security design: Stop trying to fix the user
On the tendency of security approaches to rely on somehow educating users on this complex problem.
I’ve read dozens of studies about how to get people to pay attention to security warnings. We can tweak their wording, highlight them in red, and jiggle them on the screen, but nothing works because users know the warnings are invariably meaningless. They don’t see “the certificate has expired; are you sure you want to go to this webpage?” They see, “I’m an annoying message preventing you from reading a webpage. Click here to get rid of me.”…
We must stop trying to fix the user to achieve security. We’ll never get there, and research toward those goals just obscures the real problems. Usable security does not mean “getting people to do what we want.” It means creating security that works, given (or despite) what people do.
The same could be said for usability of any kind — but it seems especially vital in this case.
Somehow we missed it
More on the hard work designers need to do to ensure they have a positive impact on society.
To create a platform designed to connect millions of people and not imagine its potential misuses is wilful blindness. When we imagine and design and build tools and technologies and platforms and services it’s as important, perhaps more important to ask ‘how might this be misused’ as it is to ask ‘how might this be used’.
How computer software can make policy, explained by family separation at the border
How bad software design decisions can have a more devastating impact than bad policies.
At a time when Silicon Valley and the larger public are waking up to the government’s reliance on software to carry out its agenda, it’s more important than ever for tech workers to be thoughtful about how they can be a force for good.
Facebook is giving advertisers access to your shadow contact information
Facebook is not content to use the contact information you willingly put into your Facebook profile for advertising. It is also using contact information you handed over for security purposes and contact information you didn’t hand over at all, but that was collected from other people’s contact books, a hidden layer of details Facebook has about you that I’ve come to call “shadow contact information.”
The hunt for missing expectations
Jared Spool tells the story of a bookkeeper who became frustrated using Google Sheets because it didn’t have a double underline function.
To keep [usability] testing simple and under control, we often define the outcomes we want. For example, in testing Google Spreadsheet, we might have a profit and loss statement we’d want participants to make. To make it clear what we were expecting, we might show the final report we’d like them to make.
Since we never thought about the importance of double underlines, our sample final report wouldn’t have them. Our participant, wanting to do what we’ve asked of her, would unlikely add double underlines in. Our bias is reflected in the test results and we won’t uncover the missing expectation.
He suggests interview-based task design as a way of finding these missing expectations. Start a session with an interview to discover these expectations. Then construct a usability test task based on that.
I recently ran hybrid interviews and usability tests. That was for expediency. I didn’t base tasks on what I’d found in the interview. But it’s good to know I wasn’t completely barking up the wrong tree. I plan to use this approach in future.
Why the future of data storage is (still) magnetic tape
A fascinating and entertaining piece about why tape is still used so much for data storage. I sort of knew that tape was still used a lot, but I didn’t know why, and I assumed that it was a legacy thing. This article taught me otherwise. And the security benefits are particularly interesting.
It’s true that tape doesn’t offer the fast access speeds of hard disks or semiconductor memories. Still, the medium’s advantages are many. To begin with, tape storage is more energy efficient: Once all the data has been recorded, a tape cartridge simply sits quietly in a slot in a robotic library and doesn’t consume any power at all. Tape is also exceedingly reliable, with error rates that are four to five orders of magnitude lower than those of hard drives. And tape is very secure, with built-in, on-the-fly encryption and additional security provided by the nature of the medium itself. After all, if a cartridge isn’t mounted in a drive, the data cannot be accessed or modified. This “air gap” is particularly attractive in light of the growing rate of data theft through cyberattacks.