Archive — Link

Abt “on the ground” after sim scandal splits him from AudiHazel SouthwellInside Electric

Daniel Abt in the cockpit of his car

In the short history of esport racing being so heavily under the spotlight while there is no real-life motorsport going on, there have already been a fair few controversies.

Yet the revelation that Daniel Abt had got a professional esport racer, Lorenz Hoerzing, to compete on his behalf in the Formula E Race at Home Challenge (a charity event raising funds for Unicef) has quickly topped the list.

This deception has cost Daniel Abt his job as an Audi Formula E driver in the real world. The fact that he has been sacked is especially extraordinary because his family’s company is heavily involved in the running of the team.

Daniel Abt himself has been outspoken on the topic of cheating in Formula E before. He once described fanboost voting patterns as suspicious, suggesting that robots were being hired to give certain drivers more votes in the fanboost poll. That comment in itself seemed suspicious to me, given that he had actually won the fanboost quite a lot around that time.

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There will be no “back to normal”Nesta

Faded out aerial view of an urban area taken on a fisheye lens

This is more than a month old. In terms of the coronavirus outbreak, that’s an eternity. But I still found this list of possible future scenarios interesting and thought-provoking.

It also comes with the major caveat that predicting the future is a mug’s game at the best of times, never mind during these times. This is inherently recognised in the fact that some of the predictions are contradictory.

I was particularly interested in the political, economic and sociocultural predictions. For instance, I have wondered if in the coming decades society will prioritise getting the basics right more over relentless innovation. This article suggests that may be the case, but that the shift may not last long.

The crisis may prompt a reappraisal of what society cares about most, with short-term attention focusing on the bottom of Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’. (This may have the effect of, for example, boosting relative status of health workers and farmers, and diminishing ‘luxury’ industries, including leisure, gaming, arts – although history suggests that this will be short-lived, and the luxury status of some goods and services may ultimately be reinforced.)

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Ignore the customer experience, lose a billion dollars (Walmart case study)Good Experience

This case study would be seen by some as a reason not to understand users at all. “If I asked users what they wanted, they’d say faster horses. Hurr hurr.”

In fact, like the idea of faster horses, it demonstrates how important it is to understand your users in the right way, not just pay lip service to doing so.

Badly-designed user research leads respondents to certain responses. This is often unintentional — avoiding bias is difficult.

Sometimes it’s intentional. Perhaps the survey designer has a pet idea. They might (subconsciously) skew the questions in a certain way to get the answers they want.

A classic example is asking someone if they would like a certain feature to be added to a product. The answer is almost always: “Er, yes, I suppose so.” People think they like choice, so more features sounds good. But in reality, too many features — or too much choice — leads to choice paralysis and greater frustration.

The lesson isn’t to ignore user research. But be aware of your biases. Be wary of surveys as a methodology. And don’t simply ask people what they want. Instead, understand what they do, and why they do it.

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FIA announces major safety changes following serious and fatal crashesKeith CollantineRaceFans

The FIA has announced a series of safety changes, including major improvements to the designs of F1 and other single-seater cars, following investigations of “28 serious and fatal accidents” at circuits during 2019.

It’s easy to talk about “freak accidents”. So it’s reassuring to see that the FIA are proposing a wide range of major safety improvements to cars and circuits. At first glace, the wide range of proposals — from strengthening chassis, to improving run-off areas, to implementing procedures around rejoining the circuit, to automated warning systems — seem largely sensible, and indicate that no stone has been left unturned in the quest to improve safety.

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Inside the 46-year journey to bring Aretha Franklin’s ‘Amazing Grace’ doc to lifeDavid BrowneRolling Stone

Still of Aretha Franklin singing from Amazing Grace

This film took almost 50 years to hit the cinema screens because the filmmakers inexplicably failed to use a clapperboard, making it impossible to edit until digital technology arrived.

The director was Sydney Pollack, who won 11 Oscars throughout his career.

“There were thousands of pieces of film with no edit points, and they were trying to sync it up to a tape recorder.” Hence the incomplete VHS and Hamilton’s invoice: He had been hired to match up footage to music by reading people’s lips.

Eventually, Pollack gave up and the hours of footage were relegated to vaults. “Sydney couldn’t really explain it to me,” Elliott says of when he brought it up to the late director. “He was a proud man.”

It seems like knowledge of this film was limited until recently, but a lot of people must have been seething at the calamity. I guess it’s a reminder that even the most successful people can make catastrophic mistakes in their field of expertise.

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Undemocratising user researchSaswati Saha MitraUX Collective

A magic triangle: "Choose two between sustainability, scale and quality"

This piece really challenged my thinking.

In my job I am currently trying to figure out ways to make quality user research scale across the organisation in a sustainable manner. It’s like one of those triangular diagrams outlining three goals: “you can have two of these things”.

Working in such a large organisation, central resources inevitably have their limits. My desire is to empower others to carry out their own user research. Our role becomes an education role. How we do that remains an unsolved problem. Various attempts have yielded variable results.

But Saswati Saha Mitra, reflecting on her experiences of trying to democratise user research, suggests that it is a bad idea.

A researcher is a dynamic thinker who has to adapt their methods and questions based on who is in front of them, how much they have already learnt and what new areas could be probed on. This did not happen. We got a lot of verbatim and videos which after a point became repetitive and did not add more to the analysis. This then led to analysis paralysis.

I’m inclined to continue trying to empower others to conduct user research. But this article is food for thought.

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UK infosec experts flag concern over NHSX contact tracing appLaurie ClarkeNS Tech

Mobile app displaying a text message from the government

This is the sort of reason why I don’t trust the state with my data as much as I trust many private companies. Apple and Google have worked together (itself a minor miracle) to develop a method of contact tracing that does not collect personal data and does not invade people’s privacy.

NHSX has rejected that model in favour of one that will enable them to deanonymise people, and store that information in a centralised database. This is the surveillance state. It risks reducing goodwill towards the NHS and other public institutions.

A statement for medical privacy campaign group Medconfidential reads: “Given NHSX has chosen to build an unnecessary massive pool of sensitive data, it must ensure that the data is well protected. With combined effort, GCHQ and NHS Digital will likely be good at defending the big pool of sensitive data. But there is no need to have that data. The best way to make sure data doesn’t leak, is to have chosen the method that never collected it.”

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Principles and prioritiesJeremy KeithAdactio

What makes a good principle? How do you avoid principles that are mere motherhood and apple pie? According to Jeremy Keith, it’s all about establishing priorities.

He goes on to outline the danger of prioritising the experience of developers or designers above the user experience. He makes an interesting observation about a perceived difference in the way developers, er, develop and the way designers do.

Developer efficiency is prized above all else. Like I said, that would be absolutely fine if we’re talking about technologies that only developers are exposed to, but as soon as we’re talking about shipping those technologies over the network to end users, it’s negligent to continue to prioritise the developer experience…

I’ve been talking about developers here, but this is something that applies just as much to designers. But I feel like designers go through that priority shift fairly early in their career. At the outset, they’re eager to make their mark and prove themselves. As they grow and realise that it’s not about them, they understand that the most appropriate solution for the user is what matters, even if that’s a “boring” tried-and-tested pattern that isn’t going to wow any fellow designers.

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Meeting the challenges of conducting user research remotelyWebsite and Communications Blog

A laptop displaying a user interface

The coronavirus outbreak has posed massive challenges for everyone in society. For practitioners of human-centred approaches to design, where face-to-face interaction is often so important to enhancing our understanding, our current requirement to maintain social distancing creates obvious barriers.

However, this doesn’t mean our work to ensure we’re meeting people’s needs has to stop. In fact, there are some perhaps surprising advantages to working remotely as a user experience practitioner.

Over on my team’s blog, I have outlined some of what I’ve learned about remote user research over the past month or so.

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How will humans, by nature social animals, fare when isolated?The Economist

Illustration of a glum-looking woman sitting at a desk in a dark room

I have worried about the social and mental health effects of the lockdown measures being implemented. But even I hadn’t anticipated quite how much conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder appear to be common following quarantines.

According to a rapid review of the psychological effects of quarantines, published on March 14th in the Lancet, a British medical journal, some studies suggest that the impact of quarantines can be so severe as to result in a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder…

One study from 2009 looked at hospital employees in Beijing who in 2003 were exposed to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which, like covid-19, is caused by a coronavirus. The authors found that, three years later, having been quarantined was a predictor of post-traumatic-stress symptoms. Another study… found that the mean post-traumatic-stress scores were four times higher in children who had been isolated.

Elsewhere, the article highlights as a problem the fact that 67% of 18–34-year-olds are finding it hard to remain upbeat. But I’m more concerned about those who are managing to be upbeat among all this madness.

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HTML: The Inaccessible PartsDave Rupert

Following on from Gov.UK’s revelation about <input type="number">, Dave Rupert has compiled a list of other bits of HTML that can cause inadvertent accessibility issues.

There are some cases where even using plain ol’ HTML causes accessibility problems. I get frustrated and want to quit web development whenever I read about these types of issues. Because if browsers can’t get this right, what hope is there for the rest of us.

Not that we should give up, of course.

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McKinsey: CEOs have no clue what chief design officers doMark WilsonFast Company

Picture of a hipster drinking coffee with headphones hanging of a massive Mac screen. I guess that's what a designer is.

Talk about designers “having a seat at the table” generally leaves me cold. But this useful article explains why it can matter — but why designers have a duty to do more than simply be at the table.

Evidence has long suggested that companies with a strong design focus are more successful. The example of Logitech outlined here bears that out.

But if some CEOs don’t understand the value of design, it’s up to designers to articulate it properly.

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Why the Gov.UK Design System team changed the input type for numbersHanna LaaksoTechnology in government

Numeric keypad interface

The Gov.UK Design System team have discovered that using the HTML element <input type="number"> creates some surprising problems in certain environments.

Some of the limitations in assistive technologies such as Dragon Naturally Speaking are disappointing but unsurprising.

But Chrome deciding to convert large numbers to exponential notation is rather more eyebrow-raising. Then there is Safari adding commas to long numbers that are in fact credit card numbers. You have to wonder about some of the decision-making among browser vendors.

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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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How community politics became customer service politics (and then consumed British politics from within)Nick Barlow

A history of community politics, how it morphed to become people pointing at potholes, and ultimately undermined politics completely.

Activism was no longer about helping people get the power to solve their own problems, but rather demanding someone at “the council” solve them for them. Rather than “we can help you do things”, the message was now that “something must be done” and “somebody must do something”, but that somebody is almost always somebody else…

Activism based around ideology, empowering people and giving them the ability to sort things out is hard, activism based around being the most efficient local busybody and delivering the most leaflets is comparatively easy.

I have often wondered about political leaflets that are all about a hodgepodge of local issues, but are strangely noncommittal about what should be done about them. All of the leaflets, in every colour, say largely the same noncommittal things about small-to-medium-sized local issues. They almost always fail to adequately explain why Candidate X is the person to deal with it.

It’s all so uninspiring. Perhaps we need to present some actual political ideas again.

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Content strategy: Beware the chatty tone of voiceLauren EllisHumanising Technology Blog

"Beware the chatty brand voice"

The perils of using an overly-familiar tone of voice in your copy. There are some cracking examples here of support content that prioritises daft quips over getting to the point.

You’ve ordered a package and you want to know how long delivery will take. It’s a straight forward question, so you would expect to find out quickly and easily. What you don’t need is a couple lines of heavily branded content standing between you and your answer. You just want to know how long the delivery will take…

Users are task-led and time-poor.

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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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There is no design systemJina Anne24 ways

Quote from Jina Anne: "In what ways can we improve our collaboration, remove any proverbial gaps between design and engineering (not just bridge them), and have more meaningful conversations around the work we do?"

Why a design system should not be thought of as a Thing like a style guide, but in fact is all about building a community.

I have to tell you: a lot of the time that I’m working in design systems, I’m not even touching a design tool. Or coding. Rather, it’s a lot of people-focused work: Reviewing. Advising. Organizing. Coordinating. Triaging. Educating. Supporting. That’s a lot of invisible systems work right there.

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Journalism and design: Building solutions to our greatest challengesCatherine WoodiwissModernist Studio

A person looking at a sea creature in an aquarium

An exploration of the similarities and differences between journalism and design, and how the two disciplines can support each other.

Like journalists, designers research human behaviour, through interview and observation, in an attempt to understand complex problems…

But where journalists focus on content, designers focus on experience — what and who the content is for, how it’s delivered, and how behaviour may change as a result. And where journalists synthesise these insights to tell stories, designers push into making solutions.

See also: The journalism and user research relationship — Gregg Bernstein — Vox Product

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Dutch “singing road” silenced after villagers complain: “I’m going nuts”Palko Karasz and Yonette JosephThe New York Times

A car driving over the musical rumble strips

This must be the most spurious “road safety” feature ever conceived.

A Dutch town decided to install rumble strips that are set at certain frequencies so that cars “play” the regional anthem as they drive over them.

This article focuses on the fact that this feature is driving residents crazy as they repeatedly have to hear this raspy version of the same melody all day (and night) long.

But surely the spurious justification is more deserving of ire.

Local officials hoped the strips would encourage drivers to stick to the speed limit.

Because, apparently, the melody would only play when drivers are driving at the right speed. Except, as officials concede later in the article, that’s not even true. If you drive at a different speed, the melody still plays — just at a different speed. Perhaps drivers may even speed up just to end the din more quickly.

What a terrible idea!

This article also contains a brilliant video from Tom Scott demonstrating an even more disastrous version of the same idea, in California.

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The strange death of libertarian EnglandChris DillowStumbling and Mumbling

Related to the idea that British people just aren’t interested in liberal ideas at the moment, Chris Dillow wonders whatever happened to right-libertarianism.

The Tories won on policies that repudiated many of their professed beliefs: a higher minimum wage; increased public spending; and the manpower planning that is a points-based immigration policy.

After outlining some reasons why this shift has occurred, he notes some less respectable explanations:

One is that we have lost the cast of mind which underpins right-libertarianism — that of an awareness of the limits of one’s knowledge. We need freedom, thought [Friedrich] Hayek, because we cannot fully understand or predict society…

We live, however, in an age of narcissistic blowhards who are overconfident about everything. This is a climate which undervalues freedom.

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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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Balwearie High School opening (BBC archive)

This video is apparently footage from a 1964 BBC interview from the opening of my old high school, Balwearie in Kirkcaldy. It’s fascinating to see how much of it looked exactly the same when I went to school between 1998 and 2004 — and how much of it was totally different.

For example, it is a revelation to see what the roof was originally like. The attractive and useful rooftop garden and astronomical equipment was gone, replaced with a plain felt roof with a haphazard walkway of paving slabs.

The school was also about twice as big by the time I went there. No-one confused it for a luxury hotel. But then again, that’s what 30 years will do to a building.

I wonder what it’s like now, 20 more years on.

Via Rich Gordon

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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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Things Fall ApartMark O’Neill

This articulates something I’ve been pondering for a while. Is the current political climate the result of a gradual erosion of the unwritten rules of civil society?

It turns out that the Civil Society in Britain is built on very shaky foundations. In the past few months we have seen the illegal suspension of Parliament, an act that carried no consequences whatsoever; we have seen Civil Servants bullied out of their jobs by politicians who were then rewarded for their harassment by promotion and increased status; we have seen the government spend £100s of millions on trying to deny the consequences of its own policy on Brexit and, in doing so, do possibly irreparable damage to the global reputation of the UK.

The post also makes an interesting point about how the BBC covers the UK in a way that assumes it is a stable democracy, and turns a blind eye to developments that would see other countries being scrutinised heavily.

Leaders in the past were guided by a strong sense of right and wrong — doing what’s right in the name of stability. Those days are now gone.

Via Strategic Reading

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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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It is easy to despair. But I say let’s foster hope insteadJo SwinsonLiberal Democrats

Jo Swinson

I found this a difficult election result to digest. Never would I have expected the Liberal Democrats to get fewer than 20 MPs, never mind with one fewer MP than at the last election.

Given that they increased their share of the vote, there is clearly a strategy problem at play. (My previous post suggests some serious organisational problems as well.) Uniquely, they increased their share of the vote in every region of the UK.

But it’s also difficult to escape the conclusion that voters are simply not interested in (or convinced by) liberal ideas at the moment.

It would be arrogant to assume that the voters are wrong. Yet, Jo Swinson was right to boldly stand up for liberal ideas of openness, tolerance and bringing communities together.

She is also right to highlight that Labour are every bit as dangerous as the other nationalist parties — the Conservatives and the SNP. Those parties are all dealing in the politics of easy answers — blaming others, and seeking to divide rather than unite people.

There’s a big challenge ahead. The ideas are not wrong, and we must fight for them. But liberals must figure out how to sell this story more convincingly.

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F1 teams unanimously vote not to use Pirelli’s new 2020 tyresKeith CollantineRaceFans

Drivers had expressed doubts over the new constructions after testing the during the first practice session for the United States Grand Prix in November. They were given the chance to test the new compounds alongside the 2019 rubber at Yas Marina last week.

However that failed to ease concerns over the 2020 tyres. Following the test Romain Grosjean said the new tyres were not a clear improvement over the ones used this year.

How many more stories like this do there need to be before people start concluding that Pirelli simply aren’t up to the job of supplying tyres to Formula 1?

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