All posts by Jonathan Baker-Bates

I am a mime.

Is UX research about “de-risking” design?

A recent conversation I had about UX research centred on whether such research is to help designers predict eventual outcomes of design interventions, or whether its role is to “de-risk” UX or business ideas.

They were keen to frame research as a way of lowering risk to the business. This applied both to design validation as well as exploratory research. The term “prediction” sat badly with them. Although they didn’t deny that “de-risking” was inherently predictive, to call it prediction seemed too technical in some way, and placed too much emphasis on being “correct”.

It also sounded to me like they thought the idea of prediction was deterministic thinking. But what I mean when I talk about prediction in design is “probabilistic thinking”.
Continue reading Is UX research about “de-risking” design?

Medium’s Complex Simplicity is Awful

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been helping out with our corporate blog, a Medium publication. Medium is utterly awful for the purpose of corporate blogging.

Disclaimer: Some of the things described here are so molar-crushingly bad that I suspect they are in fact not true. Perhaps it’s the lack of any detailed documentation for Medium, the mad navigation system, or clever-silly interaction design that hides things from you. So if anyone knows differently, please let me know.

Continue reading Medium’s Complex Simplicity is Awful

On Design as Prediction

On my LinkedIn profile, I say the following:

I predict the future. Not flying cars or robot pets, but whether any given design intervention will raise, lower or have no effect on your KPI. I do this through researched hypotheses and experimentation to become progressively less wrong. By understanding people’s behaviour and what motivates them to do things in a given domain, my design ideas have the power of prediction. Everything I create, across all projects and platforms, aims to strengthen that power.

The reason I emphasise prediction in UX, and not the more traditional “voice of the customer” or some other quality like consistency or usability, is because I think being predictive of customer behaviour (and thereby product outcomes) is the best way of showing the value of design.

Continue reading On Design as Prediction

The Mystery of Customer Feedback

It’s unfortunately true that whenever you research a list of “pain points” from customer feedback, those pain points will mysteriously turn out to be mostly – if not entirely – previously known to the business. And they’ve probably known about them for a surprisingly long time.

That sound you hear is the researchers’ crests falling as they realise this sad fact.

Continue reading The Mystery of Customer Feedback

Desktop Browser Sharing – the End of an Era

I noticed today (well, last week – it’s taken me this long to write it) that my Chrome browser had been updated with a new feature that puts the ability to share in the address bar. I want to pause to record this particular development, because I think it’s unusually significant and – in a way – frustrating.

Continue reading Desktop Browser Sharing – the End of an Era

On Design and Research

What is design? How do we make the most of research? These are two questions that seem at first unrelated, but are in fact strongly connected.

The following thoughts came from trying to  make sure research activity is used, appreciated, and understood. Along the way, it revealed an approach to design that may help solve a recurring issue in the digital design world: what is design, exactly?

Continue reading On Design and Research

On Sabbatical

Having left Tes Global, I have had a period of garden leave. Spinning out from the immediate world of design to concentrate on other things including, but not limited to, my family, reading, typing up a travel diary of a busking tour around Europe that I did during my gap year, and weight lifting.

Meanwhile, if you would like to hire me for UX design or research on either a contract or permanent basis, let me know on

My LinkedIn profile is here.


Involving Engineering Early is Hard

It seems sensible to say that not involving engineers early on in the project discovery process is risky. And at the very least it’s demoralising for the engineers.

The primary advantage of getting engineers involved at the start is seen as lowering risk by allowing them to advise on feasibility, make early decisions about the technical architecture for the project, look for edge cases, ask interesting questions and so on.

But how far away are we really from the behaviour of the waterfall-based past?

Continue reading Involving Engineering Early is Hard

On the use of “Amazon Jails”

Ever since Amazon removed their navigation from their checkout screen, it has been said that transactions (or other critical tasks the business would prefer the customer to complete) should not have “distracting” navigational elements on the screen. This is because those elements could take people away from the task at hand and erode conversion.

Not only does this idea not stand up to scrutiny (despite apparent quantitative evidence for it), but makes no sense from the point of view of human behaviour.

Continue reading On the use of “Amazon Jails”

The Lost Art of Precis

The state of copy writing on most websites appears to me mostly to be good in terms of tone, but rubbish in terms of length and structure. I also notice that just about all “style guides” for tone of voice don’t address this issue either. It’s not very hard to explain the concept of precis, or extracting the key meaning from a longer text, yet the idea of brevity seems to be absent on most sites. To arrive at the necessary brevity, the art of web writing needs also to be the art of precis.

Continue reading The Lost Art of Precis

A Problem With Design Patterns In Practice

Why is it that so far no web application platform, framework or content management “solution” seems to care about the UX of the applications they are responsible for creating?

Systems such as React, node.js, Zend, Drupal, Rails, etc. allow for the debugging of code, the optimisation of resources, ease of configuration and deployment. But they have nothing to offer when it comes to similar issues faced by UX designers who live under their shadow.

Yet with few exceptions, if the products these systems contribute to don’t look good and work well, their long-term survival, and the continuing employment of those who create them, is in danger.

Continue reading A Problem With Design Patterns In Practice

Hiding Search Facets is a Bad Idea

While reviewing a site last week, I noticed the following behaviour in a faceted search UI:

  1. Search for something as free text (eg “cups”); get a big list of cups and related items.
  2. Use filters to narrow down the list by selecting a search facet (eg “plastic”)
  3. Select another facet (eg “colour”).
  4. I then see there is no facet for “red”.  There is only green, black and pink.

Continue reading Hiding Search Facets is a Bad Idea

My move to TES Global

TES Global

Having re-designed the UI for MailOnline’s content publishing systems (currently producing close to 1,000 stories daily), my work there is now done.

I’ve always been interested in how organisations work, and it was a great experience doing UX at the world’s biggest news site. I worked daily with journalists and editors of all kinds to understand how they did their jobs and what they needed to achieve. And with “programmer anarchy” in place, I had to persuade everyone on the development team why they should listen to me. That certainly concentrates the mind, and made my mind better for it.

My next assignment is with TES Global. It’s publishing of a sort, but of a much more varied type. There’s news, but also jobs, teacher training, a large UGC project, wikispaces, and Times Higher Education, to name a few of their main properties. There’s B2B and B2C, and teachers and teaching are going through some huge changes. TES is right in the centre of that on both sides of the Atlantic, and with a eye on APAC too.

I thought a lot about where I should go after MailOnline – never completely ruling out a return to competitive figure skating.  But I’m not as graceful as I was when I was 25, so I’m accepting another challenge from the world of user experience design.


This is Important: 2015 Now Feels Like 1995

This is a post about decentralised systems. Bear with me.

I was reading this about an Internet primer in FHM magazine in 1995. The writer is about the same age as I was when the article was published. The tone of the piece is familiar. Back then, the Internet was seen as a minority interest, like drag racing or macramé.  I recall having to tone down my enthusiasm for it in polite company. I had people laugh at me in public for asserting that the Internet would be bigger than TV. Great has been my satisfaction on it becoming what it is today.

But like all grand dreams, the reality hasn’t been quite what I expected.

Continue reading This is Important: 2015 Now Feels Like 1995

Gmail’s Weird Menus

I’ve been using Gmail for years, yet I still sometimes have to think quite hard about which menu to use for lesser-used things.

While I can see the logic in having a “More” menu where such things can go, I can’t understand why they can’t just all go in there. Why is an additional menu needed, and with hardly anything to do with “replying”, these items are also half-duplicated elsewhere.

Another design-free zone
Another design-free zone

Comment is Free

This is a sensitive topic: I’m often aware that comments I make on blogs aren’t published if they contradict the point the blogger is making. Usually I just let it go. It’s their blog, they can choose to defend their opinions or not.

But sometimes I think it’s worth publishing my thoughts here if they don’t get an airing in the context in which they were intended. After all, I might be wrong in my comment, or misunderstood something and stand to benefit by being corrected. So I’ll post this, because Alon Even, writing about personalisation on mobile for UX Magazine didn’t.

(The cynical among you will point out that Alon is VP Marketing at Appsee App Analytics – so the UX Mag piece is just advertising. But I shall ignore that rather depressing fact.)

Continue reading Comment is Free

Maciej Ceglowski and the First 100 Years

Maciej Ceglowski (founder of Pinboard and overall Polish hero) says “Brevity is for the weak” – and he certainly has no problem producing very long and probably rather unread screeds. But they’re worth reading I think. I read this over the weekend. And because I believe in the power of précis, I’ll save you the trouble of his unedited fire-hose to make a point about design. If I may.

Continue reading Maciej Ceglowski and the First 100 Years

The Decline of Process and the Rise of ‘Good Enough’

Designing and building software is at least as complex and demanding of intellectual labour as the building of ships, large buildings or suspension bridges. If the number of failed software projects is anything to go by, perhaps it’s is even more difficult than these.

CC SA Photography by User: MrX
CC SA Photography by User: MrX

In modern history at least, the underlying assumption when performing complex projects like building railways or operating systems has been that you should at least apply forward planning and preferably repeatable processes as well.

However, in recent years two things have changed this assumption in software development. The first is the Agile movement and the second is a general acceptance of imperfection in exchange for novelty or availability.

Continue reading The Decline of Process and the Rise of ‘Good Enough’

Content Creator: The MailOnline CMS

A few months ago, the New York Times wrote about “Scoop”, their new publishing system.

Scoop, they point out, is more than just a means of facilitating their editorial processes. They see it as “…central to our ambitions to innovate on all platforms”. They also point out that the capabilities, ease of use, and competitive edge of content management systems is an increasingly important part of media publishing in the digital age. The fact that Google are throwing their hat into the ring shows they’re also probably right.

Continue reading Content Creator: The MailOnline CMS

10 Years of Blogging

On this day in 2004, I wrote my first post here on

As with all things Internet, 10 years seems more like 50. Tim O’Reilly had just started popularising the term  “Web 2.0“, and the digerati were people who did things like blogs – before Twitter came along and made everyone do it, sort of.  For me, this was all glued together, in the UK at least, by NTK, in which I once got a name check for an unbelievably obscure joke involving The Santa Cruz Operation and a now-forgotten pop band.

Although I had more grand hopes for Webtorque when I first started (I was toying with setting up a design agency at the time, but chickened out), it’s really been just a public diary. To that effect, I’m slightly relieved that it hasn’t had the kind of traffic I first hoped it would get, because I’m not sure if I’d fully agree with (or even understand!) some of what I’ve written here in the past.

There have been some interesting moments though. I got into a conversation with Seth Godin after I described his speaking ability as “average” (hope it’s OK to mention that now – it was a number of years ago). Britt Allcroft similarly felt the need to defend herself against some slightly unfair criticism of her. I have also agreed to remove a post that criticised somebody, not because my criticism was unjustified, but because I had better SEO on searches for their name than they did. So at least one thing I’ve learnt is that it’s easy to make enemies.

Otherwise, Webtorque has been a nice, warm, self-indulgent and barely-noticed vehicle for expressing my thoughts in ways I don’t think I would have done otherwise. And for that I think it’s been worth it.  I hope I’ll still be writing entries in 2024.

Tim Cook Should Confirm his Sexuality

I was annoyed to see this report today via Mike Elgan’s G+ feed regarding rumours about Tim Cook’s sexuality.

Elgan says, rightly, that:

“Whether Tim Cook is straight or gay shouldn’t matter to the press or the public, and we should respect his and everyone’s right to choose whether to talk about their sexual identity…”

However, given Cook is the CEO of one of biggest corporations in the world, Elgan’s opinion is rather idealistic if we really want to see a change in attitude to homosexuality. I would say instead that you have a duty to be open about your sexuality, if required. You don’t have a duty to tell people about it pro-actively, but if they ask, the right and proper response must be confident and unambiguous: “I am gay, and what of it?”

Today is London’s Gay Pride. The sooner sexuality is as controversial as your shoe size, the better. Cook’s evasion – if he has ever been evasive about his sexuality – is a problem. There is nothing wrong with being gay. Cook must not make it appear as if there is.

Stake Graphs for Web Page Performance

I often complain that infoviz for web stats is poor if you’re not an analyst by trade. Now that I’m working for one of the most popular websites in the world, I should at least come up with a device that could be used to answer the fundamental questions we have when looking at real-time analysis of a news article:

  • Is this article doing well?
  • Is it likely to do better or worse from now on?
  • Should we replace this article with another one?

Obviously, there are lots of other questions that need answering, but these are probably the main ones when it comes to news articles – our basic “unit” of content.

My thoughts turned to Stephen Few’s bullet chart (PDF) device for this. However, I made some variations to make what I’m calling a “stake graph” because it can look like a stake you might drive through the heart of a vampire. Or something.

Continue reading Stake Graphs for Web Page Performance

The Challenge of Data-Led Design

This is a condensed version of my talk for the Bulgaria Web Summit, 31st May 2014. I spoke without real notes so the following is simply the main points.


How should a UX team respond to the results of randomised control trials of their designs? Such “A/B” and “multivariate” tests hold out the possibility of finding the best approach from a number of alternatives. But what does this mean for the practice of design itself? has had one of the most advanced experimentation programmes of any website in the world. As manager of the UX Design team there, it was my job to makes sense of quantitative data and apply that to an overall design approach. What did we find out along the way? And in a business infused with numbers, what problems did we face as designers, and how did we show that traditional design methods were still valid?

Continue reading The Challenge of Data-Led Design

“Irregular Verbs” in Software Design

(This post implements my new year’s resolution of sub-titling my sections so as to make me look like I know what I’m talking about.)

At MailOnline, we have no development process. Well, that’s not entirely true, we use Programmer Anarchy. The developers decide for themselves which “table” they want to work on, and can then leave to join another table at any time. A table is roughly aligned to one or more projects.

But the main thing as far as I’m concerned is that anyone can – and does – have an opinion about the UX of the product. This is because, well,  it’s Anarchy. A large part of my role is therefore to persuade people that I’m worth the time (and my salary) as a UX designer. This makes for a refreshing change to the command and control culture of previous environments I’ve been in.

Continue reading “Irregular Verbs” in Software Design

Google’s £200M A/B Test Cobblers

The story – now passed into minor Internet legend – of Marissa Mayer’s testing of 41 shades of blue in 2009 (and the resignation of Google’s Visual Design Lead, partially because of this) has been referred to again this week. The Guardian reports that Google UK’s managing director Dan Cobley says that the winning shade of blue made Google £200 million.

The story touches on several interesting topics. The first is the idea that Google, and potentially other large sites like Facebook and Amazon, can harness large amounts of traffic to conduct randomised control trials on UX-related elements of their sites. This in turn implies they might arrive at the best (for which read “most profitable”) design without the aid of traditional designers. The second issue is about how to respond to the results of such testing, and the third is whether such testing is worth doing at all. The latter two topics are in my view very important yet hardly considered in the design world. And I have a lot to say about those things, should anyone ask.

Continue reading Google’s £200M A/B Test Cobblers

Escaping the Panopticon

Regardless of whether you see uncontrollable mass surveillance by both governments and corporations as being a problem, the fact is that it is happening. This raises questions about lots of things in life that previous generations never had to deal with, if only because the extent and methods of surveillance are also largely unknown to (and even beyond the understanding of) most people.

Continue reading Escaping the Panopticon

In Praise of Loose Security

Sometimes, what seems the obvious way of dealing with a problem may not be the best solution. For example, it turns out that if you remove traffic controls from busy city centres and rely on peoples’ instinct for self-preservation, you may get better road safety than if you imposed traditional control interventions (see also “shared spaces“).

There may be a lesson here in the design of online account registration and log in for web sites. Most UX designers assume that any user account system they’re designing for requires as much security as possible. Nobody got fired for being too safe. But this is probably bad design practice, for two reasons: it ignores context, and it’s a missed opportunity to start propagating the cultural change that we all need to make when it comes to online security. The latter is surely the ultimate aim of UX design – not only to design individual systems, but in doing so, bring about positive changes to people’s lives.

Continue reading In Praise of Loose Security

Dark Patterns: Tilting at Windmills

Harry Brignull’s “Dark Pattern Library” pops up from time to time on various news feeds (today on Business Insider, for their mutual SEO benefit).

We hired Harry when I was at to do some customer research work in 2009. I recall we got along OK. The fact that he later included us in his Library was somewhat surprising, but I suppose not altogether shocking. We were at the time showing headline prices exclusive of taxes and fees (scroll down for the shame).

But not only do I have skin in his game, as it were, I also have an issue with the overall idea of the “dark pattern” he has become the curator of.

Continue reading Dark Patterns: Tilting at Windmills

Are Small Hit Areas Easier To Hit?

The question of “fat finger” mistakes on touch screens came up in conversation the other day, together with the idea of making targets large to avoid this. At first, it seems sensible to make hit areas for controls on mobile devices as large as possible. But it was pointed out that, counter-intuitively, smaller hit areas can decrease fat finger errors.

That is true to an extent, but as with all things HCI, it’s only a part of the picture. So I thought I’d try to summarise the issues, and to recap as a reminder to myself, if nothing else. What follows is the relevant parts of this excellent article by Steven Hoober, condensed for reference.

Continue reading Are Small Hit Areas Easier To Hit?

Bulgaria, Democracy and All of Us

Last week, my attention was drawn to the fact that people in Bulgaria were protesting on the streets against the appointment of Delyan Peevski as the chief of Bulgaria’s National Security Agency. Peevsky controls the larger part of Bulgaria’s media, has no prior experience with national security, and has also been linked to organised crime.

Continue reading Bulgaria, Democracy and All of Us

The UX Asset Management Challenge

When multiple designers work on multiple assets or across multiple projects, it gets very difficult to manage files over time. Which files are the latest versions? Which files are even relevant any more? Which files contain things that may be affected by the contents of other files? Yet with a few short-term exceptions, I have yet to see any reliable method of version control and general asset management in use in either agency or in-house digital product design environments. File system layouts, wikis, SharePoint sites, piggy-backing on Perforce or Subversion installations, git hub, DropBox, and numerous other hacks notwithstanding.

Continue reading The UX Asset Management Challenge

Do High-Fidelity Wireframes Reduce Design Collaboration?

There’s some debate about the utility of “high-fidelity wireframes” at work at the moment. It’s a reasonably common topic in the UX chattersphere too, so I thought I’d expand on it here.

Firstly, to avoid some potential misunderstandings – let’s make some assumptions about the domain we’re in:

Continue reading Do High-Fidelity Wireframes Reduce Design Collaboration?

The State of Google Glass

Now that Google has released Glass to external developers, it’s approaching the point where if you work anywhere near information technology, you are going to need some kind of opinion about whether Glass will be the mass-market success Google wants it to be.

Glass deserves a fair assessment, if only because Google has the software muscle and relatively mature content to have a heads-up display make compelling sense. In comparison, things like gesture interfaces or speech recognition were essentially solutions needing problems. With Glass, the content and capabilities have come first – and that, if nothing else, is new. Anyone who has used Google Now will know where the basic Glass experience is going to start.

Continue reading The State of Google Glass

My Move to Associated Newspapers

MailOnline Logo

After a little over 5 years at, part of the Expedia Inc. group, I shall be moving on to be Lead UX at MailOnline, part of A&N Media. It’s not actually the Daily Mail, but it is publishing, it is advertising funded, and as such it’s at the centre of one of the most disrupted industries in the world. This I hope will be very interesting…

First though, I want to say I’ve had good times at I joined a team of 3 in the UX department for EMEA, and leave that team now with almost 20 people looking after the site worldwide. It was a wonderful experience working for what is probably now the largest e-commerce site both operating in, and run out of, London. Selling one of the most complex consumer products you can sell in the digital world, they have the people, resources and working environment few Internet industry employers can offer you outside of Silicon Valley. I am both lucky and privileged to have been there as long as I was. But now my work there is done, and I wish them all the best in what continues to be a very successful business.

The situation at MailOnline is similar to that of when I joined. I will be the third UX employee, the others (both LBi alumni) having started only a few months ago. So this is not going to be about what MailOnline is now, but what will be for the most popular news site in the world. The brand believes strongly in free information not paywalls, has the revenue to back up that belief, and is now growing rapidly in the US.

I thought a lot about where I should go after, including a return to competitive figure skating. But those who know me will understand my interest in news publishing, being as  I am very interested in the role of media in the digital age. So this is also about the possible future of networks, information and culture. It’s about copyright and community, which things are close to my heart. Many of those things converge at MailOnline, so in joining them now and at this stage of their development, I hope to have a hand in shaping the future of news.

Wish me luck.


Negroponte and Blockbuster – Pt II

A long time ago, I allowed myself a cheeky dig at one of my heroes of old, Nicolas Negroponte. The news this week about Blockbuster UK made me think of him, and how they outlived his prediction by almost a decade. But the prediction business is hard, and if Blockbuster took twice as long to go as he thought it would (albeit enjoying something of a peak in the year he thought it would have died), then so what.

Incidentally, I predict News International will have ceased to exist or been sold off by midnight April 5th, 2025. Let’s see how I do.

What’s Worse Than A Pie Chart?

I dislike pie charts. I may even dislike people who use them. But even worse than a pie chart is a quite recent device that doesn’t (I don’t think) have a name. These are the circles that appear mostly in newspapers and magazines to illustrate some quantitative comparison – here’s an example of what I mean.

This technique has perhaps been legitimised by the likes of  David McCandless, who appears obsessed by both circles and the using of areas to represent relative amounts. The reason I dislike this nameless technique is mainly because it’s very hard to judge relative sizes by area as opposed to length. This is of course also a big problem with pie charts. This much-lauded poster of the US budget breakdown is an egregious example, particularly when you consider that most people under-estimate differences in area – which is also one of the reasons why McCandless deserves a special place in hell, in my opinion.

But you don’t have to take my word for how hard it is to judge differences in area, and why horizontal bar charts or their equivalent are almost always better. Here’s a nice game you can play to prove it to yourself once and for all!


Click to Run

UX and Big Data

I’ve been lurking, and recently posting, on Edd Dumbill‘s  Google+ “community” discussion about “big data” since he set it up a few weeks ago (dunno if it’s a public group – G+ is opaque about these things – and I’m too lazy to find out).  Dumbill works for O’Reilly Media, and helped popularise the term “big data” to describe a rather nebulous phenomenon of corporations and other entities using (some would say abusing) very large amounts data so as to spot interesting patterns. Naturally, this piqued my interest in terms of the ramifications for UX, but first I needed to get a handle on the definition of what “big data” might actually be. Perhaps also not without coincidence, O’Reilly have been involved in popularising new concepts with buzz words in the past – “web 3.0” being one of the most obvious – so I was a bit wary of possible hype. Stephen Few has also recently come out against the term (PDF) on the grounds that it over-states the capabilities of technology in order to sell software solutions to the gullible.

However, for the impatient (or simply lazy) UX-ers out there, I can report back on my investigations on what is the Interweb’s latest buzz phrase – and what it might mean for UX.

Continue reading UX and Big Data

A Problem With Visualising Data

Data visualisation (“dataviz” or more broadly, “infoviz”) appears to serve two main purposes. The first is to show data to people who are not analysts or experts. This is so that they can understand some or all of something that has already been identified in that data. The assumption here is that raw tables, or perhaps bunches of charts or diagrams, don’t easily reveal what’s going on. An example of this would be Tufte’s favourite graphic, which summarises a large amount of what would otherwise be rather uninspiring figures about temperature, troop numbers and the positions of rivers on a route.

The second purpose is to help analysts and experts discover things in raw data that would be difficult to find by other means. An example of this (perhaps, because I’m not an expert in the domain) might be PrognoSim, which visualises the effect of medical interventions on patients.

Continue reading A Problem With Visualising Data

Is This The Most Elegant Map Ever?

I was having a look at the state of Japanese web design today (we’re doing some customer research there at the moment)  and saw this towards the bottom of the home page of the Yomiuri Shinbun site.

For those who don’t know, the Yomiuri is the world’s largest newspaper by circulation. I would imagine their website is also read by Japanese from a wide variety of demographics.

At first glance, the object looks like an oddly-arranged table of news stories by region. A couple of seconds later, I realised it wasn’t a table but an extremely abstracted map of Japan configured to fit neatly across the page. They have a somewhat less abstracted vertically-orientated version here.

Continue reading Is This The Most Elegant Map Ever?

Statcounter’s Chrome Story Is Bunk

A while ago, I noticed a startling report from Statcounter had fired up interest in the mainstream media about Google Chrome beating Microsoft Internet Explorer in the “browser wars”. Statcounter claimed their research showed most Internet users now using Chrome. The report was echoed far and wide, seemingly by journalists who had no ability (or interest) in checking the claim.

This weekend, I also read in the Sunday Times (yes, sorry, Murdoch paper…) that a branding agency called Essence – who happen to be doing some work for us – are topping the Sunday Times “International Track 200”. Their profile in the paper (but not online) cites some work for Google that helped “… Google Chrome to overtake Internet Explorer as Europe’s No 1 internet browser“.

Continue reading Statcounter’s Chrome Story Is Bunk

Is Single-Tasking Just Better?

Until iOS came along on Apple’s touch screen devices, having a windowing operating system was de rigour for any sophisticated computing experience. Nobody really asked why – it just seemed good. Have a video playing in one window, your email in another, have your spreadsheet in another one and, I dunno, move them all around with your mouse. For fun. What’s not to like?

Until iOS, the idea of a major market player releasing an operating system that wasn’t windowed would have met with utter derision. How 1985 would that be! Yet with the iPad on a 9.7″ screen, that was exactly what you got. And everyone loved it.
Continue reading Is Single-Tasking Just Better?

A Funny Thing About A/B Tests

I was having a look today at this question posted on Quora: “What are the most unexpected things people have learned from A/B tests?“. The writer clearly expects answers on specific tests, but a couple of people have referred to the surprising behaviour of people who run or react to the tests themselves.

I think it is notable that people conducting A/B or MVT very often don’t seem to understand what to do with the results they get. Results are often used inappropriately, or otherwise used as excuses to play fast and loose with the facts.
Continue reading A Funny Thing About A/B Tests

Window Painting Gantt Chart

On the few occasions I’ve told myself the situation calls for a Gantt chart – or more accurately the use of MS Project to plan tasks and dependencies such that I end up with a Gantt chart – I’ve almost always been disappointed. In retrospect, the complexity of the project, or my lack of skill in using MSP, has meant the plan ended up not being able to predict much of what actually happened.

At, we don’t do project plans in UX/Product beyond “Q3 deliver this, Q4 deliver that”. I don’t have cause to break out MSP these days for any granular tasks. So I was pleasantly surprised last week to find that my project planning software skills hadn’t been entirely wasted. This weekend, I decided to paint our sash windows – and that called for a Gantt chart.
Continue reading Window Painting Gantt Chart

Citation Needed

I was reading this Wikipedia entry today, and saw this:

Roger Waters’ 1992 album “Amused to Death” was, in part, inspired by and deals with some of the same subject matter as Postman’s book. In The End of Education Postman remarks that the album had “elevated my prestige among undergraduates”, and says that he has no “inclination [to repudiate Roger Waters or his kind of music] for any […] reason.” However, he describes that “[t]he level of education required to appreciate the music of Roger Waters is both different and lower than what is required to appreciate, let us say, a Chopin étude [my emphasis] … Most American students are well tuned to respond with feeling, critical intelligence, and considerable attention to forms of popular music, but are not prepared to feel or even experience the music of Haydn, Bach, or Mozart; that is to say, their hearts are closed, or partially closed, to the canon of Western music … There is in short something missing in the aesthetic experience of our young.”

For the avoidance of doubt, I wouldn’t listen to Roger Waters either myself – I find him turgid and pretentious. But that’s what musical taste is all about. Yet the Neil Postman quote strikes a chord (no pun intended).

Continue reading Citation Needed

The User Experience of Digital Signatures

How about that for a boring title? But it’s something that bothers me quite regularly. Why is it that “asymmetric encryption” appears to be fundamentally beyond the understanding of anyone who doesn’t work directly with computers?

It’s now become such an issue for me that I’ve written to my MP about it.

But before you write me off as some parliamentary postbag loony, consider what’s pushed me over the edge on this issue: the UK government’s Communications Data Bill.

Until now, the question of why so few people seem neither to know nor care about digital certificates in their use of the Internet has appeared to me as basically frustrating, but not worth getting too upset about. Ever since I first saw the famous New Yorker cartoon about identity on the net, I have wondered why it is that people appear to think that being confident in the identity of anyone on line is like being confident in the existence of pixies at the bottom of the garden. Pixies probably don’t exist, but confidence in who you are communicating with in the digital world most definitely does. In fact, if you take in network effects and chains of trust, verifying identity can be more reliable (and certainly thousands of times easier) than in the physical world.

Now it strikes me that if such things were more widely understood, then the government would not have made such a colossal screw-up of the drafting of the Communications Data Bill. Here’s my letter to my MP on the subject:

Continue reading The User Experience of Digital Signatures

Screw You, LOCOG

So, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Limited say they will only let you link to their site if you have good things to say about them. From their “linking policy” on their site:

“a. Links to the Site. You may create your own link to the Site, provided that your link is in a text-only format. You may not use any link to the Site as a method of creating an unauthorised association between an organisation, business, goods or services and London 2012, and agree that no such link shall portray us or any other official London 2012 organisations (or our or their activities, products or services) in a false, misleading, derogatory or otherwise objectionable manner.”

Screw that, breadheads! Let’s all join in the fun!

Continue reading Screw You, LOCOG

Ubuntu HUD 3 Months In

I’ve been using Ubuntu Precise Pangolin’s HUD feature, which is now included with Ubuntu’s Unity desktop.  You may recall I went a little crazy about this feature when it came out of beta. So after a few months of using it, what are my experiences?

Firstly, it’s clear that the HUD needs a speedy machine. My first use of the system was disappointing because I’d hit the HUD key (more on which later) only to have to wait about 350ms before anything happened. Speed, in the case of quick-fire casual use of something like this, is crucial. So, I replaced my 5-year old Dell with a new machine (Geek out! Intel i5 3550 3.3GHz Ivy Bridge, 12Gig RAM, NVidia GTX 500 Ti, OCZ Agility 3 SSD SATA-III).

With the speed problem completely cured, I then found that there was something I didn’t like about the default left CTRL key that launches the HUD. So I changed that to the caps lock key. Higher up the keyboard and less awkward as it’s under my little finger. It’s also the key I’m used to using for Enso Launcher on my laptop at work. Enso uses a quasimode by default. Although you can configure it to a full mode, I have kept it as the default because I find all the good things that are said about quasimodes to be true.  However, Enso is of course just an application launcher while the HUD is much more of a grown-up CLUI. Having to keep your little finger on the caps lock while typing anything more than a few characters is pretty tricky. So a full mode for the HUD makes more sense, although I’d still like the choice of a quasimode to see what it would be like.

Continue reading Ubuntu HUD 3 Months In

Are 37Signals Getting Real?

A recent post on 37Signals’s blog is interesting. Jason wants somebody to help them with customer conversion and retention.

One of the reasons why I like 37Signals is that they truly subscribe to the model laid out by the Cluetrain Mainfesto. 37Signals have without doubt turned their organisation “inside out”, as the Manifesto predicts modern firms will. They have even taken this one step further with the publication of Getting Real – The smarter, faster, easier way to build a successful web application.

Continue reading Are 37Signals Getting Real?

Attribution Chains and Copyright Evolution

The other day, I was interested to see the comments on this Google+ post by BoingBoing contributor and general Internet person Sean Bonner.

Somebody called Steven G appeared to be complaining about Sean’s lack of attribution. Naively, I assumed he meant the creators of the work, and posted a reply along those lines. But I quickly realised by his reply to me that this wasn’t what he meant at all. He didn’t appear to care (or even know) about things like the photographer’s copyright – what he meant was that Bonner hadn’t said where the image was re-posted from.

Perhaps that’s not so interesting really – but wait – Steven G  also refers to an incident whereby G claims to have created an image to be posted on Google+, only to have it re-posted shortly afterwards without attribution by Bonner. Yet in complaining about the lack of attribution about somebody else’s work, Steven G also appears not to make a distinction between original works and things simply re-posted. It strikes me that this is entirely logical. If you create something to be shared on a social network, why indeed make such a distinction?

Continue reading Attribution Chains and Copyright Evolution

Test-Driven Design: A Little Method Goes a Long Way

At we’re pretty test-driven. We’re testing stuff all the time on the site with multi-variate or A/B tests of various kinds. But as I always point out, doing tests (or indeed any kind of quantitative or qualitative research) is easy. It’s what you do with the results that count.

So when I see a test proposal, I always ask myself “what if?” What if the result is X, what would that tell us? And if it is Y or Z? Could we use that information to design something even better? Might the result of that test give us a clue about what to test next? So in a sense I’m not really interested in the current test, I’m interested in what happens after – when the results are in.

Continue reading Test-Driven Design: A Little Method Goes a Long Way

Sketchy Debate

It seems like not too long ago, many IA/UX designers fought endless battles on mailing lists and Usenet about whether Visio was better than Freehand which was better than Omnigraffle which was better than Excel (no, really, I’ve seen people use Excel to express UI ideas). There was always some software or other that totally rocked while some other tool sucked. Almost as boring and futile as the OS wars. Perhaps I just learnt to ignore it all. But if I remember correctly, didn’t we all reluctantly agree that when it comes to getting to the best execution of an idea, it’s what you do, not how you do it, that counts?

Perhaps not, as there seems to be an increasingly vocal band of people who want to make a point about  how wonderful the act of “sketching” on paper is. Moreover, that some people see this as an issue of “sketchists” vs non-sketchists allows me to see this in similar terms to the aforementioned tool wars. There is certainly nothing wrong with a quick scribble to crystallize your thoughts or to demonstrate an idea to somebody. I would also broadly agree with Jason Mesut here (although isn’t it stating the obvious?). But the further you go in this, the less clear the benefits of sketching become.

Continue reading Sketchy Debate

From Research To Design

(If you’ve come to this from Twitter, I’m just testing my new Twitter WP plugin with this article)

Shortly after I wrote up some thoughts on test-driven UX, I happened to notice “Bridging User Research into Design” over on UX Matters.

In the article, 11 of the great and the good offer their thoughts on essentially the same thing as I was thinking about in my post: how to use research to create something you think is better than if you hadn’t done any.

The opinions offered are mostly about qualitative research, whereas I was focussing on quantitative in the form of multi-variate testing. However, I was surprised that the role of hypothesis was given very little consideration. In fact almost all seemed to ignore it altogether.
Continue reading From Research To Design

Approaching Test-Driven Design

At we’ve been doing multi-variate testing (“MVT”, or sometimes “A/B testing” if you’re variant challenged) for a while. This means we typically build a number of different designs, then let them duke it out on the live site to see which one performs the best.

Recently, however, I’ve been increasingly aware that while we have a very powerful tool in MVT, power is nothing without control. When you can test anything you want, things can soon get out of whack: so a bigger button didn’t move any needles; adding a link to a map raised conversion; a red background meant customers in France bailed out. Now what? What do these things mean for us and our work as designers?

What has been focusing my mind is how we should best respond to the results of MVT tests. How we can build on those results and progress towards even better ones? I’m also aware of two other issues that relate to our design activity in this regard: the “local maximum” problem, and how qualitative research fits in.

Some people have said some things about test-driven design and the effects of MVT overall, but I assume that because MVT isn’t that common, it’s not really an issue for most practitioners. Dell is a notable exception, but even if you’re not doing MVT, I think some of the following might be worth bearing in mind in UX generally.

As an aside, I am not trying to say that this is the best, or the only, way to approach test-driven design. I gave up believing too much in the portability of UX techniques long ago. What follows is what I think may work for my team in their current working environment.

It may completely bomb for you.

Continue reading Approaching Test-Driven Design

Corporations Raid the Public Domain

(I posted this to Google+ a couple of weeks ago, but I may as well post it here too)

Each time I engage in any activity that involves the legislature, I come away feeling soiled. Despite numerous independent and well-respected studies that said term extension in sound recordings would not achieve anything most people would call positive, the EU have voted to extend it.

The thing that really depresses me about this is not that I spent hours sending letters to MEPs and others explaining why they needed to oppose this. Nor is it that I received almost no substantial acknowledgement. What really depresses me, and threatens to radicalised me against participating in all party and issue politics, is the fact that when I did get responses, they were glib handouts citing recording-industry funded studies in support of term extension. I might as well have been writing to the BPI than my local EU representatives! The fact that none of them seemed to give an ounce of consideration to something other than money in their work as public servants just makes me want to… nah, what’s the use.

They stole our public domain, but we’ll take it back one day

Find out why

On Bulding an Extension

For personal reference, and in case it helps somebody else, here’s a summary of how we built our single-storey rear extension on our 1900 mid-terraced house in North London, completed March 2010 (some photos are here).

We’d not undertaken any building work before, other than having a replacement kitchen done a few years previously. Because of this, we proceeded with caution as you will see. What follows is a summary, but feel free to ask questions in the comments if you need more details.
Continue reading On Bulding an Extension

Maps Part 1: The Problem

Robert Scoble has an interesting interview with Chandu Thota about The Dealmap (recently bought by Google).

Although I completely take Thota’s point about APIs and 3rd parties, what strikes me is the apparently automatic assumption that using a map (and the now nearly ubiquitous Google API mashup) is the best way to show his data. It’s as if we are now locked into the idea that if we want to use information visualisation to discover things that exist in space, we must use a geographic map.

But there are clearly problems with this assumption. Firstly, using geographic maps to display things brings with it an amount of irrelevant data. What, for example, is the use of knowing that a school or a hospital exists near a shop offering 10% off a haircut? Does it matter that the road on which a crime has been reported runs north to south, or that there is a creek to the east of a hotel?

Continue reading Maps Part 1: The Problem

Specialisation in Design Roles

To what extent should a designer specialise? Can somebody perform UX/IA design as well as graphic design as well as the craft of markup and styling? And does that increase their effectiveness? Is it in fact only possibly to span two of these areas? And what does “effectiveness” mean in this context?

That last question makes me think that in fact it’s probably all just boring old capitalist economics.
Continue reading Specialisation in Design Roles

Dateless Idiocy from

If you put something up on the web, you need to give it a date stamp. Not doing so makes you look like Squidoo.

So I’m shocked (no, actually, I am quite surprised!) that thinks it’s acceptable to leave them off. Maybe it means they just don’t care about things like accuracy. I guess it’s easier than simply saying so on their home page. “This is the website of the UK parliament. We don’t care about our content or whether or not you find it helpful.”

What is an “Infographic”?

I see that Stephen Few has now encountered the work of David McCandless and, as I expected, has rather a lot to say about how bad it is.

He’s not alone in thinking that McCandless’s work as minimally informative, often unclear, and sometimes downright misleading. Like Few, I have yet to see McCandless create an effective data visualisation. What I find more interesting though is why so many people think such statistical graphics are worthwhile. After all, McCandless’s work seems to do well, and he appears to have a fair amount of admirers (not least the Guardian Newspaper, and others).

So I was fascinated to see some possible answers to this question emerge in comments on Few’s blog. These address the central issue of why some people seem to think an infographic is about something other than informing people about something. It’s a question that I’ve wondered about in the face of poor information designs. The ubiquitous pie charts, the maps, the numbers shown in very big figures. There’s so much drek out there – and if you ask me, McCandeless is the high priest of it. But now the spontaneous discussion on Few’s blog has cleared at last some of the fog for me.

Continue reading What is an “Infographic”?

Where the Internet is Going

At the 2011 FOSDEM conference in Brussels on Feb 5, 2011, Eben Moglen gave talk called Why Political Liberty Depends on Software Freedom More Than Ever.

“Well we can go back to mesh networking. We’ve got to go back to mesh networking. We’ve got to understand how we can assist people, using the ordinary devices already available to them, or cheaply available to them, to build networking that resists centralized control.”

So it’s happening. And in my opinion, it should happen.

Ubuntu’s Overlay Scrollbars

It’s not often you get a radical change in the WIMP model, but the mighty Christian Giordano has tried just that with the introduction of “overlay scrollbars” in Ubuntu 11.04.

Unfortunately, I think this is what might be called a “misfire”. The main problem is that in hiding the thumb of the scroll bar by default, you are immediately up against Fitts’s Law because the reduced size of the target will slow its acquisition. That’s an HCI fail – and one that will ensure you’re never going to work for Bruce Tognazzi.

The other problem I have with it, from a methodological point of view, is that Giordano is taking his cue for the design from current, mostly mobile, touch interfaces. These sometimes exhibit similar scroll bars in order to reduce clutter on the screen. Clutter is of course a good problem to solve for in the highly constricted world of mobile and tablet UI. But desktop interfaces are a completely different kettle of fish. For starters, the vast majority of people running Ubuntu will be geeks with high resolution screens with oodles of real-estate available. Indeed, even if they’re not geeks, it’s hard to find anyone with a screen of less than 19″ at 1280×1024 these days. So that’s a UCD fail in not considering your users. The aforementioned Fitts’s Law issue is also aggravated by large screens with high resolutions because of the large distances between pointers and targets.

So it’s a nice try. But no cigar. I’m turning them off, and so should Ubuntu, I’m afraid.

What “Fail Fast” Doesn’t Mean

Agile development is a process (nay, a “culture”) that amongst other things has a number of revolutionist slogans attached to it. One of these is “fail fast” – sometimes boosted by the rejoinder “fail often”. My relationship with Agile has been a bumpy one, but I think I’m qualified to at least understand the basics of why that might be. And from a UX perspective, the “fail fast” mantra has been a particularly difficult one for me to understand when I observe it in practice in scrum culture.
Continue reading What “Fail Fast” Doesn’t Mean

Facebook Watch

Saying that hoards of my friends like Wired’s website is just a lie. Or at least implying that they do is disingenuous as I’m pretty sure that none of them have liked it. And is that huge number just made up? Who cares?

This sort of casual fakery (which Facebook thinks nothing of, regardless of how underhand) is I suppose just part of Internet life now, but it’s annoying at best, and in aggregate, morally corroding.


It’s almost as bad as neglecting to date stamp things.

Is Collaboration the Best Way?

It has become a shibboleth of the UX and Agile communities that “collaborative design” is the best way of designing things. Or if not the best way, it is at least better than leaving people to come up with solutions on their own. Regular readers of Webtorque will know that if there’s one thing I like to do, it’s to question things that appear to be received wisdom. The usually unchallenged assertion that collaboration in design is always good is a prime example. So, let me set up a straw man and look at it from the perspective of my own experience.

Continue reading Is Collaboration the Best Way?

Finding a Good Hotel with Chernoff Faces

I’ve been wondering whether using Chernoff faces might be a good variation of the “advanced search” pattern in the context of finding a hotel to stay in.

Choosing the right hotel requires a number of quite complicated things to be considered. But which things you place the most emphasis on depends very much on the context of why you are booking a hotel in a given location or time. If price is the only consideration you have, then you’re lucky. The hotel star rating; the distance of the hotel to where you want to spend your time; the opinions of other people; photos; the existence or absence of certain amenities (gym, pool, etc.) – all and more of these things usually come in to play to an extent.

Chernoff faces are one way of encoding easily decoded multivariate statistical graphics. Humans are also very good at spotting minute variations in human faces, and pictures of faces possess the obvious quality of being instantly recognisable as such. Hotels posses some data ranges that could be encoded into facial attributes to spot outliers, so I’ve put this all together and done a quick sketch of how this might work in practice.
Continue reading Finding a Good Hotel with Chernoff Faces

The Return of Patronage?

Over at Louder Than War, there’s a good old argument going on. It’s mainly between Alec Empire (who opposes the Pirate Party and free culture by the sounds of it) and some others who are representing the “progressive” view.

As I read Alec’s views, I can’t help thinking that while Atari Teenage Riot is a great name for a band, if most people heard them they’d find it quite hard work being entertained. Personally, I’ve always liked Alec and his work (and even met him briefly), but I say this as somebody who happily chooses to listen to Consolidated and various other industrial stuff.

But why is that observation relevant to a debate about the free exchange of music made for commercial gain? What follows makes me look dangerously like some objectivist lunatic, but I’ll give it a go.

Many musicians like Alec Empire, Metallica and Feargal Sharkey argue for the regulation of the Internet, the arrest of music “pirates” and the destruction of methods of free information sharing on digital networks. They do this in the name of putting money back into the pockets of musicians. That money, they say, is being stolen by file sharing. They do not, however, consider the historical context in which they are saying these things. I think that in fact that historical context may be telling them that the party is over. From now on, it’s back to 1850.

Continue reading The Return of Patronage?

A Design Thought

I’ve had a bit of a realisation about the way I come up with design ideas that I’d not considered before (see below), but first, an important aside. Many people in my field mistake the activity of discovering and refining their own design processes as being a signal that they should recommend these processes noisily to everyone else. However, just because I think that a certain technique or principle works for me, it doesn’t mean that it will work for everyone (indeed even anyone) else.

So this isn’t about finding any one true way, it’s about the way that generally works best for me. Tra la la.

Continue reading A Design Thought

Movement and Change in User Interfaces

Several months ago, we made some changes to the search results of, and among these was the creation of a “pinned header”. As you scroll down through the list of results, a portion of the page header stays with you. Here’s the UI before scrolling. And here it is with the header pinning (linking to screenshots for archival purposes).
Continue reading Movement and Change in User Interfaces

Mick Karn 1958-2011

Mick Karn, once bassist with Japan – pop history’s most underrated band (albeit with one of the worst names ever) – died this week.

I remember reading an interview with him years ago in which he was asked about his unique style of bass playing. He said he didn’t know how to play it in any other way. I can understand that statement, if only because in my own microscopically insignificant way, I often used to wonder the same thing when I played the drums (and why I couldn’t just play them better). Where does style come from? Some seem to develop it, some just have it given to them. Karn’s fretless style was fascinating, and in combination with Steve Jansen’s drums, became for a time in my opinion the most innovative rhythm section in contemporary music.

When I heard of his death, I immediately thought of the bass-line for “Alien” (760K mp3 Spotify), where the timing of the sliding bends in and out of the bar in a way that I’d never heard before – or since. We’ve lost a really interesting musician.

How to go back

Ah, synchronicity. No, not the 80’s album by The Police, but the fact that I was recently thinking about “back” buttons and software states in the design of our forthcoming Android and iPhone app. And so was Aza Raskin.

Raskin suggests an improvement to the much-improvable experience of using the Apple iPhone’s ultra-simple, yet rather confusing “home” button. To cure what he says is a big problem on the phone (albeit not one I have myself noticed, but I’ve not done much research into it), he suggests a two-stage button instead.
Continue reading How to go back

An Internet Mirroring Protocol

What I know about Internet protocols can be written on the back of a postage stamp, but that doesn’t stop me from wondering about them. Wikileaks’s recent call for mirrors (link may be down, obviously) got me thinking about the general possibility of a web site mirroring protocol that would make automatic the distribution and discovery of content beyond the reach of censorship.

Continue reading An Internet Mirroring Protocol

Stamping Out User Experience

I think I’ve been a user experience designer for about 10 years now. I say “I think”, because I regularly read descriptions of methods of working and relationships between people in multi-disciplined web and software development teams that I don’t recognise. It is of course with great interest that I like to find out about these, but I often get the impression that either the proponents of these methods must be working in situations fundamentally different to my own, or they are just imagining ways of working without actually trying them out.

It’s possible that my career has not been representative, but I think it somewhat unlikely. I’ve worked in small teams (less than 5) as the only UI designer, in both waterfall, scrum and other situations. I’ve worked as one of several user experience architects on large projects for multi-national brands. I’ve been in agencies, and in-house, and I’ve worked a little bit on my own. Even with that comparative variety, I think I’m not being too dramatic when I say that in all that time, I’ve not repeated the same “design method” twice.

Quite why this is I don’t really know. Perhaps it’s because with only very few exceptions, I’ve been pretty dissatisfied with every project I’ve ever been involved with. Most things I’ve produced have either suffered from being compromises to some or other factor out of my control, or have been failures for other reasons probably down to my own doing.
Continue reading Stamping Out User Experience

RSS on Kindle via Linux

With my Kindle’s free worldwide 3G connection (which I’m hoping to make some use of when I’m travelling to the Americas next month), I thought I’d investigate options for reading RSS feeds.

Being the geek I am, I liked the sound of Daniel Choi’s kindle-feeds, a neat little Ruby script that gets RSS feeds from the sites you want, then formats them as single file for the Kindle. The Kindle 3 also comes with the ability to email files to your Kindle free of charge. RSS and free email transfer – two great tastes that taste great together! So, if you’re running Linux, and want get RSS feeds on your Kindle, read on.
Continue reading RSS on Kindle via Linux

What a Difference a Zero Makes

Not that I expect truth in advertising, but this is a nice example of an abuse of statistical graphics. In this case, a bar chart from Debenhams in Oxford Circus.

You could be excused for thinking that Debanhams travel services are offering TWICE as many Euro for the same price as you’d get from their competition. Look closer, however, and you’ll see the chart doesn’t start with zero on the y axis.

Fix the scale, and thereby make the chart show the data as it really is, and you reveal a rather less compelling picture.

The iPad Kindle Thing

So I bought a Kindle the other day, and have been thinking whether I should have bought an iPad instead. But the more I use the Kindle, the more that seems like an irrelevant question, despite all the debates that rage around it. For example, somebody I know recently mused that “… in some way the Kindle is like a crippled iPad: only monochrome, poor browser, etc.” His point was that if you look at the technology, the Kindle appears to exhibit a rather crippled sub-set of that provided by the iPad. As a new Kindle user, here’s my view on that.

Continue reading The iPad Kindle Thing

Scrum Didn’t Work For Us

Last year, our fearless team of interaction designers, creative designers and interface engineers (about 20 of us at the time) took the decision to embrace Scrum, the “agile” methodology for project management.

We were all given training courses to attend, and I myself volunteered (along with several others) to become a certified Scrum Master. As we began on sprints, attended sprint planning and reviews, and got together for sprint retrospectives afterwards, we debated the details of what we were trying to do. Our goal was to produce better things, possibly faster, but certainly more efficiently by controlled iterations and close contract between team members.

I believe we tried as hard as we could to make it work. However, after 6 months we could see it was not going the way we had hoped. Reluctantly, we began to prepare to transition the UX capability out of Scrum and back into something more like our old “waterfall” method. We enforced closure on this with a “failure party” a few weeks ago, to mark an episode from which we learnt a great deal.

Continue reading Scrum Didn’t Work For Us

Perhaps the Only Way is Up

Lately I’ve been rather depressed about the state of user experience design. Both my own (management overheads, inability to sweat the details, lack of self-belief…) and that of the wider community. So it didn’t help that one Cameron Chapman delivered a further kick in the teeth the other day with 10 Usability Tips Based on Research Studies.

This is a truly awful article and a good example of some of the things I feel are eroding the field of UX design into a shapeless idiocracy of self-congratulating muppets. It’s a prime example – sadly among many – of what seems to be a near total disregard for the limitations of research, while also trying to present arguments as rigorous. Ignorance of the principles of statistical graphics also does her no favours. All this is topped off by what now seems to be the obligatory blizzard of ridiculously unconditional praise. God I’m depressed.

As a final flourish, she also chose not to publish my (surprise!) negative comment about all this on her article. At least, I posted what follows here on the 19th, and I see there have been several posts since then. No sign of mine though. Of course, it’s her stuff after all and she can publish what she wants.

But information wants to be free, so here’s here what I said:

Continue reading Perhaps the Only Way is Up

If Knowlege Is Really Important

I had a bit of a Seth Godin moment a while ago. I have been meaning to air it in public for a while. I don’t have such moments very often, so please indulge me.

Working as I do in a large e-commerce company, I am constantly bombarded with information generally intended to make my team better at what we do. Third party research, industry reports, news, internal research, customer analytics, charts, trends, observations, suggestions, the insight of senior management… the list never gets shorter. Inevitably, this means that we are perpetually skimming the surface, unable to properly manage it all. I’ve had a (so far unrealised) plan to deal with some of it, but here’s another:

Continue reading If Knowlege Is Really Important

Google’s Incremental Search Results

New in Google’s live testing is what Jef Raskin described as “incremental search” (also jokingly referring to the dominant search pattern as “excremental search”) about 10 years ago. He predicted it would be usually the best way to perform free-text queries like this. At the time, few systems were really able to implement it, so it was hard to say for sure.

Continue reading Google’s Incremental Search Results

TabCandy Good

Examples of good functional design in the digital space (as opposed to good ways of making existing ideas look nicer), are so damn hard to find these days. It follows that good designers are also very rare. So thank heaven for Aza Raskin, scion of the late great Jeff Raskin, designer of Firefox mobile, and Creative Lead for Firefox. Aza consistently produces real, solidly innovative, and actually useful designs that solve problems. Here he is with an evolution of the “zui” to deliver TabCandy, a very nice idea to improve the way you use Firefox.

As an aside, Aza’s work also makes MSIE’s “designers” look like a total bunch of muppets. There are probably hundreds of them to his one, yet they couldn’t think up anything new or interesting if they swung from trees made of fruit loops.

Privacy Facepalm

I admit it, I’m on Facebook. I know they’re selling my information. They probably have a whole team of people called something like “Personal Data Merchandising” thinking up new and ever more devious ways to trick me in to giving away just that little bit more. I sort of know I’ll regret it. A bit like smoking, playing Urban Terror or eating bacon, I suppose.

But this is just totally and utterly beyond the pale:

“We will not store your password.” Sure. And Clinton never inhaled either. Never mind the fact that it’s technically impossible not to store the password in this situation (if only for enough time to log in, which is enough time for anything to happen), but what does it do for the culture of data security overall? What if they decided to ask for your online banking credentials? You have the choice not to provide the data, but if you think all your friends are,* and hey – you’ve got nothing to hide – why not?

Seems to be just a matter of time before the whole idea of trust, security and ethics online just totally disappears.

* BTW It’s almost certainly untrue that the people shown have tried the Friend Finder. I’m going to ask them. Just watch Facebook ignore me when I complain.

Apple and the Non-Hover Non-Problem

Every time I decide to pen a rant about some user experience issue or other, I feel a bit guilty. Guilty because I know it’s hard to be positive, easy to be cynical, and makes me look nasty. But I’m going to justify this one on the grounds that if countless hoards of designers are bleating about how good something is even if it’s objectively full of holes, I have a duty to counter-balance the situation by pointing out this fact.
Continue reading Apple and the Non-Hover Non-Problem

Worst Infographic Yet: Colours in Cultures

David McCandless is an interesting person doing interesting things. Interesting to me, that is, because his work exemplifies something I find deeply mysterious in the way people regard information visualisation. His pursuit of “beauty” seems to be a licence to override clarity, truth, and even common sense. Yet he is widely lauded (here he is writing on the Guardian’s Data Blog). In this, he is surely the anti-Tufte.

McCandless’s current pièce de résistance, “Colours in Cultures” – depicted on the cover of his book Information is Beautiful, typifies all that baffles me about him and the people that praise his work. It’s the Philippe Starck juicer of information graphics: it looks great, but if you actually want to know what the colour purple represents in different “cultures”, it’s damn hard work compared to the obvious alternative of a simple table. But then, that would be boring, I suppose. So is it art or science? Am I asking the wrong questions about it entirely? Perhaps I should buy his book and hit myself over the head with it until I understand.

“I’ll Never Read From a Screen”

With the launch of the Apple iPad just days away in the UK, I’ve been reading reviews of the device in the popular press (a typical article here).

First let me state that I probably will never buy an iPad unless I’m forced to do so. But one good thing it’s done already is apparently kill off – stone dead – the idiotic notion that ebooks will never take off because they lack a mystical property of paper that makes reading from a screen somehow against human nature.

What was previously de rigour when discussing anything that presented itself as something on which you might be expected to read large amounts of text, is now seemingly taboo. Not a single iPad review I have seen in the last couple of weeks refers to this hitherto insurmountable problem.

Of course, there is nothing magical about the iPad that makes reading from its screen any easier than a Kindle or a Sony Reader (or even a boring old laptop). It’s just that the cult of Apple is so strong that what was once a required criticism is now suddenly not an issue. Good. Bring on the final death of dead tree media, and with it the end of the last shackles of the information age. There will be plenty of problems to fix in the future, but wondering what to do about Caxton’s ghost is not now one of them.

Now Flattr-ing

Having received my Flattr invite, I’ve now added buttons to this blog and hope to retire early on the proceeds. (EDIT: They’re now just on the individual post pages, since they load rather slowly)

Flattr is a system whereby people can show their appreciation of content on the web. It works by allowing you to donate a proportion of a fixed amount of money every month to whomever you want. I’m setting aside 2 euros per month (but it could be any amount). If I click a Flattr button twice this month, two people will get a Euro each. If I click ten times, ten people will get 20 cents each, and so on. If I click nothing, my 2 euros will go to charity.

If you like my thing, and have a Flattr account, you can show your appreciation too. I don’t expect the get much, if anything, but the web is a free global publishing system with Google indexing it. If I were an upcoming musician, an author or an artist, Flattr might make my situation completely different.

Blair Peach, The Teacher

“Radicalise” is a term that I’ve heard some people use about defining moments in people’s political lives. It was longer ago than I care to remember, and I was very young when I heard LKJ’s “Reggae Fi Peach.” Today it’s all come back.

[Adobe Flash movie was here]

“Oy people of England,
Great injustices are committed upon this land,
How long will ye permit them to carry on?
Is England becoming a Fascist state?
The answer lies at your own gate;
And in the answer lies your fate.”

Bypassing the Act

We now have HMG’s Digital Economy Act in the wild. Conceived (by and?) on behalf of the music and film industries, drafted in ignorance of many technical realities, and rushed through the legislative process without any effective parliamentary scrutiny.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that avoiding the Act’s provisions on copyright infringement turns out to be trivial. All that is required for consumers to immunise themselves from the Act is for them to declare themselves not to be “subscribers” as defined by the Act, but “communication providers” instead. Here’s one ISP explaining the situation. As a “communications provider”, you avoid being harassed by your ISP if rights holders suspect you of infringing their copyright, and the ISP gets off the hook in having to spy on you as well. Well blow me down with a feather.

What I find the most depressing thing about all this silliness is that the legislators involved in creating the Act probably don’t care about it anyway. Their work is now done: the bungs have changed hands, the lucrative “advisory positions” and board memberships have been negotiated, and the “donations” have been made. Yes, some MPs opposed the Bill, but the vast majority neither knew nor cared about it.

I hope the ballot box in two weeks time will knock them all into a smoking hole in the ground.

The Power of Video

It looks like my wife will be stranded in Japan this week following the Icelandic volcano eruption. I thought I’d better look at her travel insurance provider’s website (a company I’d not heard of called Holiday Extras), prior to playing the inevitable game of IVR over the phone.

Frankly, I wasn’t holding out much hope for any actual customer service from the site (it’s Sunday in the UK after all), but I was pleasantly surprised to see their CEO on video explaining the situation and giving useful advice on what to do. Faced with juggling announcements from NATS and Finnair, as well as reading T&Cs to see if she’s covered, this was very refreshing.

I liked the video, and I think other people will too. It’s friendly, immediate and frank. A great example of lo-fi doing the job: get a camera, grab the CEO and get him talking. Who cares that it’s apparently in one take, that he looks a bit nervous, and it’s probably unscripted? It’s the head man talking to his customers straight up. This is what the web was supposed to deliver, and I think it’s a smart brand move for Holiday Extras too.

Of News, Paywalls and New Ancient History

Everyone as boring as me on the subject of copyright, community and contemporary culture (OMG it alliterates!) has something to say about the Great Paywall of Murdoch. It’s coming to an interface near you in June, we are told.

So naturally, I have been ruminating on this too. My thoughts were crystallised when I read Roy Greenslade’s article in the Evening Standard today (which only recently become a free paper in London – an irony there). Greenslade’s argument is essentially as follows. The paywall might work, it might not, but no matter because we must all remember that “news” is a public service:

“How can we preserve a public service that, not to be too pompous about it, is a key — arguably the key — bulwark of our democracy?”

And in conclusion, he says:

“If people also turn away from online papers that offer serious, quality editorial, the likely outcome is a damaging democratic deficit. We cannot afford to allow that to happen.”

This, I suddenly realised with great and rapid clarity, is tripe.

Continue reading Of News, Paywalls and New Ancient History

Auntie’s Got a Brand New (Global) Bag

So, a new “visual language” (AKA design directions) from the Beeb! Most of their blog post is about visual design and grids, so I’ll leave comment on that to others, but I couldn’t ignore the following:

“We want to create a modern British design aesthetic”

And people at the Beeb wonder why they’re seen as arrogant! He he, only jokin’.

However, there are a couple of interesting IA/UX things here.

Continue reading Auntie’s Got a Brand New (Global) Bag


Scrum is now officially my thing (850K PDF), having just taken my certification exam after the training I had a couple of months ago. A score of 80% or above is considered mastery. My result was: 92% (1.1Mb large image)

I would have got more, were it not for my failure to read one of the questions properly. Q13: “True or False? The product owner must be present during at least the first half of sprint planning.” I read as “The product owner must be present during the first half of sprint planning.” So I gave that a “false” – they need to be there for the whole of it! Bugger.

I did get one wrong genuinely though, which shows my shaky grip over the definition of stories and tasks. Still, if anyone wants a scrum mastering, I’m your man. Pity I’m now not officially on any scrum teams any more. Oh well.

Will IPv6 Be A Threat To Privacy?

I’ve just noticed this on my favourite law news site. Law news is so much more interesting and thought-provoking than other kinds of news, and this piece certainly got me thinking.

Widespread adoption of IPv6 is generally regarded as being part of the next stage of Internet development. The ability to assign unique address to literally anything and anyone on earth obviously opens up a large number of possibilities.

But this makes the French ruling rather worrying. If IP addresses are not personal information, this means IPv6 may well become the platform for a surveillance-based network the likes of which we have only just begun to see in our current IPv4-based world.

Naive Users May Not Be What You Think

Here’s a fascinating incident. In a nutshell: net news site posts a news article about some Facebook business development with AOL. Nothing remarkable about that. But then something strange starts to happen. Hundreds of people start posting comments complaining about how their beloved Facebook has changed and they can’t log in … to

The article has since been updated to point out to people that they’re not on Facebook (have a look at the comments while you’re at it).

It seems these people may have been used to typing in the words “facebook” and “login” into Google, in order to start the journey to their favourite social networking website. However, the Googlebot being what it is,’s article had at some point ranked higher for those keywords than Facebook itself. Used to clicking on the first result to get to Facebook, these people then became rather confused.

Continue reading Naive Users May Not Be What You Think

Piechart Badness. Corrected. has a free personal finance dashboard that I thought I’d have a look at. It’s really an early beta, and they’ve been soliciting feedback and generally being very receptive. So, I’ve just sent them the following email.

By the way, I’ve decided that OpenOffice Presentation, with which I did the mockup, is rubbish. Apologies in advance.

Continue reading Piechart Badness. Corrected.

Worst Infographic Yet: AlertMe Energy

(Apologies to Mike Elgan for the headline on this one)

Those in the UK who want to use Google Power Meter can do so using a wireless doobrie from AlertMe Energy. Nothing wrong with that, but words fail me at the staggeringly bad information visualisation on their site. I hardly know where to begin with this:

You’d think that people involved in making us aware of energy consumption would have some clue about how to actually present the data. But look at this. Just look at it. Worse than what? Compared to when? Per what? Population adjusted? Last updated? Why the map and the dial? I’m all for fun and frolics, but really, it has to have at least some underlying integrity!

Copyright and New Righteous Indignation

On January 5th, 2010, The Independent published a photo as a backdrop to a feature inviting readers to submit pictures of the snow and cold weather. But they never asked the photographer if they could use his work.

Newspapers and magazines have of course from time immemorial sometimes used work without either attributing, asking or paying the creators. There are a number of reasons for this, and cock-up is certainly one of them. Were it, say, 1970 and not 2010, the rights holder would have doubtless written to the newspaper telling them that they had used his or her work and demanded payment. If the paper refused, then Small Claims court would have been the next stop. All things being equal, the paper would have then paid up because in those days copyright was boringly simple.

In 2010, however, copyright is no longer boring. It is no longer the preserve of industrial regulation, it has many shades of grey and personal opinion associated with it. So instead, this is a rather subtle tale of Internet-age righteous indignation, confusion about the law, contract, the prevailing culture of media and art, and the nature of marketing and popularity.

Continue reading Copyright and New Righteous Indignation

Deserving of Neither

Angela Epstein is unbelievably pleased to have been able to “bag poll [sic] position” in getting a national identity card. While she is apparently aware that the cards are “hotly disputed”, she says “everyone is entitled to their view”.

Epstein (the Jewish surname not without some grim irony here) may think that ID cards are to be debated at the level of the colour of soft furnishings or who should win The X Factor, but amid all the blinkered admiration, this was for me almost the worst comment I’ve read about ID cards so far. How are liberty and freedom a matter of personal opinion? I’m not denying they can and should be debated, but there is a truth to be revealed in that debate beyond mere opinion. I think that truth is that if you collate a vast amount of personal information in one place (the National ID Card Database), that data will leak out, be abused, and generally come back to haunt those who thought it was such a good idea. And by that time it will be too late for all of us. Control needs control. The only reason for control is more control. When politicians start down the road of identity cards and use that to build up a surveillance database beyond anything that has ever existed before, the lessons of history may well be mere preludes to what could happen.

Epstein is clearly no idiot, and her article has a rather curious ring to it. These two things make me rather suspicious, and judging by some of the comments, I’m not alone.

DRM’s Role in the Demise of Joost

I’ve written before about Joost, and while I didn’t predict their complete failure, I did predict one thing that some people seem to have missed: that their irrational faith in DRM was not a good sign. That faith led them to go down the proprietary client download route, and not (as Hulu and YouTube did) the more successful path of embedded Flash to deliver content via the browser. The result was obscurity, and ultimately death.

With reportedly millions down the Swanee, Joost is now the first major casualty of the cult of DRM – an idea that cannot work, should not work, and shows every sign of not working so far. So the adage still stands: if you base your business on the principle of preventing anyone copying your content, that business is destined to fail.

But the Joost affair may be a mere skirmish compared to the coming battle waged by News Corp. That, I think, is going to be a biggie.

Putting the ‘P’ Back Into VPN

It’s now clear that the government wants to control people’s use of the Internet, ostensibly on behalf of the media industry, but more likely in the longer term because (to paraphrase William Burroughs) control always needs more control.

For a while now I’ve been thinking whether it might be time to tunnel my Internet traffic over a VPN to somewhere that’s not on my ISP’s network. That way, I absolve my ISP from having to monitor that traffic (because they wouldn’t be able to), and I get some privacy.

Continue reading Putting the ‘P’ Back Into VPN

On a Yacht in Corfu

I’m glad I’m not a full-time political activist, and just an armchair one instead, because I’d be beyond cynical by now if I were.

As it is, today’s announcement that the UK will adopt the “three strikes” policy to copyright infringement leaves me merely livid. Livid that such a bone-headed, technically illiterate policy is being adopted, and livid that a government minister should simply do what a bald billionaire tells him to do, ignoring the advice of numerous independent studies of the issues.

Here, in measured tones, may well me my last letter to my saintly MP on the subject.

Continue reading On a Yacht in Corfu

Some Notes on 10/GUI

Robert Clayton Miller‘s 10/GUI desktop multi-touch idea wafted out of the ether towards me last week, and I’ve been giving it some thought after watching the video a few times.

10/GUI is unusual in that Miller describes himself as a graphic designer. Unlike people such as as Jeff Han, he is not approaching the issues from a traditional HCI-led, computer scientific, or industrial design perspective. I think that’s a good thing in some ways. Multi-touch implementations have tended to have rather more to do with ivory towers and Hollywood than is really good for them, and we need some more practical thought. 10/GUI seems a good shot in that direction.

The following are some notes on Miller’s idea, in no particular order, made as I watched the video.

Continue reading Some Notes on 10/GUI

The Mysteries of Office Printing

A couple of weeks ago, Lorenzo Wood posted a great example of one of the reasons why I find the use of office printers fascinating. I am amazed, amused, informed and utterly baffled by this in pretty much equal measure, all the time. A trip to the printer is almost as good as a trip to the kitchen or (if I were a smoker) a fag in the car park.

Continue reading The Mysteries of Office Printing

Visual Vocabulary 9 Years Later

For no apparent reason, I suddenly remembered Jesse James Garrett’s Visual Vocabulary today, which he promulgated almost 9 years ago this October.

I recall at the time that there were a number of people hailing it as the first true user experience documentation standard, and I saw no reason to disagree with them. Yet after a couple of years, I hadn’t really heard of anyone using it for real. Indeed, when it came to visual languages and UX, it was more often than not the dreaded UML that was being bandied about.

Continue reading Visual Vocabulary 9 Years Later

Retail Piracy

If I forward an email from my MP to a local news outlet without that MP’s written permission, that’s an infringement of Crown Copyright. I copy and paste some text from an online newspaper article. That’s probably an infraction of their terms and conditions. If I take a video of my son with a couple of seconds of The Simpsons on a TV screen in the background, and publish said video on YouTube, lawyers for Fox might send me a letter. I sing new lyrics to the tune of a 1950’s hit in public, and I’m facing a claim from the rights holders. Legal and contract restrictions are everywhere, whether I realise it or not.

Continue reading Retail Piracy

Mashing Up Lily Allen

I’ve just been reading Lily Allen’s blog. For those not following such groovy things as closely as I do, she has recently decided that Piracy (she gives it a capital pee), is bad. So bad in fact that it is destroying lots of jobs and stifling new talent because those poor music executives won’t be able to lavish bazillions on young artists like her. She also hates Harry Potter films by the sound of it. Blimey.

As an example of misdirected fury, it’s a good one. She’s not exactly a hard target, but to demonstrate the effect of her misdirection, I thought I’d get down with her scene by giving it some – mash-up style.

OK what I mean is I’ve changed some bits of her blog post to illustrate a point. See if you can guess which bits I’ve changed.

Continue reading Mashing Up Lily Allen

The Microsoft Way

I’ve had an unusually frustrating day with Microsoft office, so I’m venting. Coincidentally, here’s a little titbit trawled from the oceans of Slashdot this evening – some anecdotal evidence of the way Microsoft do usability “research”:

I’ve participated in usability testing at MSFT (Score:5, Interesting)

… as a developer.

They basically have labs with one-way mirror. User is left alone in a sound-proof room and given a set of tasks to perform. Everything is recorded (including facial expressions and sound), and any developer can take a look at the test either from the adjacent room or from his/her workstation (using Windows Media Player). The only input the user gets is when he gets so confused he can’t accomplish the task from the list. In which case the person conducting the test just says “next task” and that’s it.

Continue reading The Microsoft Way

Navigating The Three Realms of Privacy

I’m not sure if I’ve blogged this idea before or not, but here’s a mini-thread that came up on Slashdot today. It’s about of the ignorance that a lot of people have about data security that I thought illustrated my thoughts quite well:

>> You have no reasonable expectation of privacy in your email communication.

I think you don’t understand the concept of “reasonable expectation of privacy”. It’s not a technical idea meaning “this data is secure”. It’s a social/legal idea, meaning “third parties are supposed to know that this data is private, and so they should keep out of it even if they are technically able to look”.

Continue reading Navigating The Three Realms of Privacy

More fun with pseudo-science

Regular readers of Webtorque will recall that I put forward a theory of statistical information some months ago, which probably needed to be read in the style of the Monty Python sketch of a similar vein.

Today, I have another theory about the visual presentation of statistical information, and it is a theory that is this:

The value of a statistic decreases exponentially to the amount of non-statistical information included with it.

This is therefore a theory of chart junk: if you draw a graph, and show the X and Y axes as being made out of clocks and cherries respectively, you have decreased the value of your chart by an amount corresponding to the two distracting things you’ve added to it. The same is true of diagrams in general. I say it’s exponential, but if it’s not then it’s certainly not a linear function.

The corollary (oh yes) of this is that it’s pretty hard to do much damage to a chart by removing things, so they’re usually good candidates for reduction.

Phishing with 3-D Secure

A couple of years ago, I was obliged to find out about the user experience of Verified by Visa and the Mastercard SecureCode systems for inclusion on our site. it was plain to me from the outset that the designers of 3-D Secure (the protocal on which these are based)  had not a clue about what real people are like, or how true security works. Cory Doctorow put it best when he described the credit card companies as “phishing their own customers.”

Continue reading Phishing with 3-D Secure

The New Rights Aristocracy

Today’s news from Tinsel Town is that the heirs of J R R Tolkien and the charity they head, the Tolkien Trust, are seeking more than $220 million in “compensation” from New Line Cinema as a cut from the huge profits from the Lord of the Rings films. The family say have a right to this money because it was promised to them in the contract the author signed in 1969 with United Artists.

The moral, social and (at these sums) economic impact of all this seems rather remarkable. The author of the original work has been dead for almost 40 years. He received $250,000 for the film rights (perhaps about a $500,000 in today’s money). Yet society, and not least Tolkien’s children, sees nothing wrong with providing rewards to his heirs – heirs that had nothing to do with either the books or the films – in perpetuity.

Of course, this particular case is fuelled by contract (and I don’t know anything about the charity involved), but as copyright terms extend ever onward to infinity, will we see a new aristocracy arise from all this?  Those who through nothing but the accident of birth are born instantly into wealth for generations after a single individual of their blood line wrote a book, composed a song, or wrote a play. What is the reason for this? What does it serve other than greed?

The next time I undertake any contract work, I’ll try slipping in a clause that commits my client to paying me and my heirs an income after they’ve paid me a lump sum for the work. Just a few quid a month. Nothing too greedy. But in perpetuity, naturally. I wonder what they’ll say?

In Praise of Assumptions

Whether or not you think that “user-centred design” is generally a good way of  designing a web site, most would agree that before doing any real design work, you first need to listen. Ideally, you should listen to the people who will be using your site. At the very least, you should listen to some or other form of research that can give you ideas about suitable design directions to follow. When it comes to design, selflessness is the goal. Alan Cooper has based a large part his career on this idea. Love you, Alan.

The trouble is, it’s practically impossible to keep your own opinion out of the picture when coming up with solutions to design problems.  No matter how much research you do, personas you create, or lab sessions you run, research alone cannot tell you exactly what to do in terms of the detail of the design itself. So the practical effect of research is to lead you make assumptions. Of course, the hope is that these assumptions are correct. On the other hand, some people  make a virtue of  not trying to listen too much, and instead relying mainly on their personal opinions to produce good designs. Apple, 37Signals and I’m sure various others, are among these. What they do is simply bring assumptions out into the open.

Continue reading In Praise of Assumptions

Is It Too Slow Yet?

About a year ago, I decided to turn off pagination on this blog. If you scroll down, you will see at least the introduction to every post I’ve ever made – approaching 700 now.

The reason I did this was to have some counter evidence to give people when they tell me that long pages are bad because they have “load” problems. My supposition was that assuming you used well-designed markup and CSS, you could have an almost infinitely long page and nobody would notice. While those parts of the page below the fold are loading, you are probably looking at the parts that are above the fold, so the size of the page doesn’t matter. You can try this at home.

The current total download size of the page is reported by YSlow as about 2.3Mb. From time to time I remember to do a subjective test of this page to see how it’s doing. While it takes about a second or so for the above-fold content to appear (somewhat slower than I would expect), after that it’s usually fine on most connections I’ve tried.

I wonder if anyone else has noticed?

Security’s First Mistake

Earlier last week, the mighty Joshua Kaufman brought my attention to Jakob Nielsen’s latest alertbox about removing masks from password fields. This sparked some interesting debate, and it got me thinking again about passwords and security in general.

It has often seemed to me that the first mistake people tend to make in applying security is they think more is more. But to paraphrase Burroughs: without analysis of the threat, security can never be a means to any practical end other than simply more security. A wonderful example of this mistake is in Cory Doctorow’s recent Guardian piece about how he and his wife tied themselves up in knots when they tried to work out what would happen to their encrypted hard-drives and network passwords once they died or were incapacitated. The result being almost complete paralysis.
Continue reading Security’s First Mistake

Outlook 2007’s Silent Clipboard Revolution

While I’m obviously rather late on the uptake here, I recently (and rather reluctantly) upgraded to Office 2007 on my work laptop. The “ribbon” UI is now sapping my will to live – I had to resort of Googling to work out where the “Links” dialogue had gone in Word, and many functions in Excel seem to have just disappeared.

But one thing suddenly jumped out and grabbed me the other day as I was using Outlook. Finally, after about 15 years of total and utter madness, the one feature I have wished countless times was different, has changed:

The Office 2007 clipboard in Outlook preserves target formatting by default. Here: watch the video (923Kb FLV).
Continue reading Outlook 2007’s Silent Clipboard Revolution

Kill the Gateeper

With the Kindle DX — Amazon’s new large-screen e-reader – the debate about the delivery of information via printed paper compared to that of digital is starting to pick up even more. Earlier, I’d wondered about reasons to prefer dead tree media that weren’t based on just aesthetics. I see that in reviewing the new Kindle, and much to their credit, Slate has avoided misty-eyed discussions of ink-stained fingers or the timeless aroma of newsprint. Instead, they’ve gone for “graphic design” (although they actually mean information architecture, but I’ll let that pass):

“But both versions of the Kindle are missing what makes print newspapers such a perfect delivery vehicle for news: graphic design. The Kindle presents news as a list—you’re given a list of sections (international, national, etc.) and, in each section, a list of headlines and a one-sentence capsule of each story. It’s your job to guess, from the list, which pieces to read. This turns out to be a terrible way to navigate the news.”

Continue reading Kill the Gateeper

Sticking up for books and paper

“To hell with you. To hell with you and to hell with the Internet. It’s distracting. It’s meaningless; it’s not real. It’s in the air somewhere.”

Ray Bradbury (90) doesn’t explain why he doesn’t like the Internet, but I think I can make a good guess based on the “it’s in the air somewhere” remark.

Whenever anyone discusses the merits of books over digital literature, somebody always says something about how nothing can beat the feeling of a nice book: the paper, the ink, the smell of it, the weight of it, the warm, friendly feeling, etc. etc. Indeed, the emotional aspects of printed media usually seem to be the only argument presented in favour of them. Fans of dead tree media say that books and paper are emotionally better because they’re tactile and look nicer than [insert technology under discussion]. Bradbury’s attitude seems to be no exception.

Continue reading Sticking up for books and paper

What is it with Americans and Swearing?

What, exactly, do otherwise intelligent Americans find so objectionable about the effective use of swearing? Here’s Seth Godin, marketing guru and otherwise all-round sharp cookie, upholding the grand US tradition of wondering more than seems even remotely reasonable about somebody who likes to put swear words in their books. Who cares? You may as well fret about somebody who puts too much sugar in their tea. File under Impenetrable Cultural Mysteries.

Dateless Idiocy from Squidoo

This has been a pet peeve of mine for a long, long time: if you’re going to put information about something on the web, PUT A DATE ON IT. It’s not hard – it can be automated, fun even. As it is, I have to ignore stuff like this because I don’t know if it was posted yesterday, last year, or 10 years ago. What was the author thinking? For all I know, the article is completely irrelevant.


Somebody is now going to point out that there is in fact a date on the page and I just didn’t notice it. Or they’ll say you can query the HTTP server for the last modified date or something. Not that I would be remotely bothered. Dates on information are of crucial importance. Not giving them the prominence they deserve is crass stupidity.

Google Wave: OpenDoc Redux

I’m watching the keynote from Google I/O the other day and it’s impressive stuff, technically at least. I can count on the fingers of one hand the occasions I’ve wanted (or needed) to collaborate on the same document in real-time with anyone, but I shall curb my natural cynicism. The mere fact that they are releasing a large part of Wave as “open source” (no mention of actual licence as yet I don’t think)  makes it all an order of magnitude more exciting than if (for example) Microsoft or IBM were presenting these ideas.

There is a lot to take in here, but some initial thoughts from my notes:

Continue reading Google Wave: OpenDoc Redux

User Experience in the Real World

I’ve just been mailed by a company called Zetetic about their mobile password storage application called Strip.

Zetetic are interesting in that they are a small, cutting-edge software development house specialising in RoR and .NET. They appear to be principally a consultancy, but also develop and and sell their own applications. This is very similar to that other noo-tech (and intensely American) poster child, 37Signals.

Have a look at  Zetetic’s about page. What (to me) is also immediately interesting is that there is nobody on the team who is putting their hand up for user experience.  Both of the developers also have the word “senior” in their title, as if that meant anything in this context (the only other people in the company are the founder and a support hand). But I’ll let that go.

Continue reading User Experience in the Real World

Avoiding Being Watched

First, let me say that I have nothing to hide.

Well – I wouldn’t want random strangers looking at my bank statements. Medical records would also be private (although I’m sure I’d put a brave face on any public revelations). Where my kids are is also off-limits. I won’t tell you how much tax I pay (other than it’s too much), or how much I earn, what party I actually vote for, my sexual predilections, my membership of various clubs and societies, where I went on holiday and when, and … lots and lots of other things.The potential list is long. I would think that most people’s lists would be of a similar length. In reality, we have a lot we want to hide for no better reason than privacy. Living in a panopticon is not something we want to do.

Continue reading Avoiding Being Watched


Just so wrong – and you have to dismiss it with a mouse click as well. Possibly an even worse violation of the principle of avoiding user distraction than Windows networking trumpeting its wireless connections. Why should I care?

It’s so hard living through the dawn of interaction design. All I can hope for is that we will see a day when people who are responsible for  design decisions like this are burnt alive on a pyre of unsold copies of Acrobat Professional.

It’s ‘Internet’ – with a Capital Eye

The campaign starts here.

The word “Internet” needs to be capitalised. It needs to be capitalised out of respect for its importance and the fact that it’s a proper noun. We don’t write about “the pacific” or “oxford” or reading “the times newspaper.” We should not  write about “the internet” for the same reason.

I’ve always capitalised the word “Internet” because if it wasn’t for the Internet, I wouldn’t have a career, a house, a car, or a life. The Internet is a place, a concept, a thing – and a very important one at that.

So it’s time all those closet Internet-hating sub-editors (the ones that secretly – and needlessly – fear that their jobs are being stolen from them by the machine) to grow up and pay homage to the word. And the word takes a capital eye.

On Maps and Ecommerce

I remember an English teacher asking us what, in our opinion, was the most useless thing we would have to learn at school. I replied that I thought it was the capital cities of the world. What possible advantage could you have over anything with the knowledge that the capital of Peru is Lima?  I was somewhat surprised that he agreed with me – although I later found it would be a trick question. He was making the point that education itself is useless – something about Milton. But that’s another story.

Continue reading On Maps and Ecommerce


So, jail terms for the Pirates of Pirate Bay.

“Judge Tomas Norstrom told reporters that the court took into account that the site was “commercially driven” when it made the ruling.”

Commercially driven? What then, your honour, is the difference between Google, and The Pirate Bay?

Yes, you could outlaw all trackers, but that’s not going to happen. The fact is that the verdict – as the defendants have always pointed out – is merely theatre. The music industry had to do something, so they did this. It is significant that the trial was a pretty close run thing, and the prosecution didn’t get nearly all they wanted.  The damages awarded in no way reflect the music industry’s fiction that every illegal download is a lost sale, and the appeals process has yet to begin. The site itself will carry on, and the entire affair will be more fuel for the likes of I2p and others.

The Mystery of Documentation

It’s that time again, when my fragile designs need to be encased in a sturdy barrel of documentation and set off down the rapids of implementation. All I can do is hope that they end up at the bottom in one piece.

If there’s one thing that’s constant about documentation, it’s the maddening inconstancy of its form. This seems to be due to the inconstancy of the development process itself,  which is something now gradually being accepted via things like Agile methods.  For example, I was interviewing somebody for an IA position the other day and we talked about what kind of documentation they had done.  To him, documentation is like doing bird impressions:  the lesser spotted prototype, the crested sitemap, the heavy spec. He could do them all to order. None of them was any better or worse than any other. What mattered was whether they were appropriate to the circumstances of the project. Stodgy waterfall methods demand huge detailed documents, while groovy Agile projects demand throwaway prototypes. The IA just produces what’s needed. None were a magic bullet, and none very effective really, and he was the first to admit it. We can only do our best.

Continue reading The Mystery of Documentation

Please Help Stop Bad Things Happening

Hello? Can you hear me? This might sound boring – a technicality. It involves industrial regulation, copyright and law. But it’s important, and we should all be at least concerned, if not angry, about what is now happening in the European parliament. What is more, time is running out and we need to act now.

What is this about?

The music industry (people who make money from musicians: for example Sony Music, EMI and industry groups that represent the recording industry like the BPI) want more money. Various reason are given: piracy, advances in technology, the situation in their markets in general, musicians needing pensions (er, no that one doesn’t make sense to me either), and other things. But we all know you don’t really need an excuse to make more money. If you see a way of getting more of it, you go for it regardless – just ask bankers.  Greed is good.  So, the music industry is asking politicians in Europe to make a change to copyright law so that recordings can be under copyright for up to 95 years. Right now, it’s 50 – not a very long time to make money from anything, as I’m sure you’ll disagree.

Continue reading Please Help Stop Bad Things Happening

Tag Clouds: The Final Word

Regular readers of Webtorque will know that I’ve droned on about tag clouds several times. Here I go again, but this time, it’s final. I promise. It comes of a brief discussion about our opinions about tag clouds at work this week, which was a good opportunity to summarise what I thought about them – and over a nice cheese sandwich, as it happened.

Tag clouds are good at doing a very specific task very well, but are also hideously misused to the point of utter meaninglessness in a great many contexts. While I don’t think there was any researched intention behind their first use as we know them today, it turns out they are extremely good at giving a semantic summary of a large body of text. As such they offer a level of abstraction above the traditional synopsis, and this can be valuable in the right context.

Continue reading Tag Clouds: The Final Word

Zoopla: The Ocotopus Did It

In January of 2008, a new property website called Zoopla! started up. With property prices going ever skyward, it wasn’t exactly a surprising launch, but Zoopla! itself was surprising. Like all very good ideas on the web, it was simple and well executed, yet allowed for good, often complex, effects to happen: list every house in the UK and allow their owners to “claim” them, declare their intention to sell, and tune the price with extra data against a global price estimate, itself refined by network effects. Estate agents were (at least in theory) nowhere to be seen. The CEO even gave me a bottle of wine.

I’ve re-visited Zoopla! a few times since then, but today I see they’ve changed. They have, to put it simply, sold out to the estate agents. Gone are the comprehensive listings, the house price algorithm presumably now a figment of the agents’ traditional hype. I learnt in the new year that they’d found a large investor – the ominously named Octopus Ventures. From the press release:

‘Alex Macpherson, Chief Executive, Octopus Ventures, said: “ has the potential to become the UK’s most valuable property asset. It is an extremely compelling proposition…”‘

He was right, but what he did with his £2 million doesn’t make Zoopla compelling in any way at all. They’re just like any other estate agency site now. What a pity – and what a waste of a good idea.

RIP Zoopla – you’re going nowhere now.

Demolition Man

Headphones are wonderful things, and I’ve been amazed at what I’ve been hearing through them recently. In a fit of nostalgia, I decided to sit down and re-visit Grace Jones’s version of Sting’s Demolition Man (mp3, 5.6Mb). Leaving aside its merits as a pop song, I think it’s one of the greatest feats of studio sound production ever achieved. Here’s why (warning: what follows is dancing about architecture).

Continue reading Demolition Man

Play More Music

So I bought an MP3 player this week. The reason I’ve not owned one before is simple: motorcycles. For the past 10 years or so until the end of 2008, my main form of daily transport was two wheels powered by internal combustion. But when I started work at Expedia, my route in was too easy by tube. Being almost at the end of the Northern Line, I can get a seat most mornings, so with some regret, I sold my bike and joined herd. Yes, there have been delays, train oddies, and the occasional ride down the wrong branch, but so far it’s been OK. Really.

First stop on the line for music I’ve been wanting to listen to is The Pixies, and maybe the Violent Femmes, although I’m currently giving the Prodge’s new album a go. At this rate I might have to add my widget.

The Term Extension Argument

So I’ve been asking my MEPs what their position is on the proposed EU extension of copyright term in sound recordings. The motion, as  currently tabled, calls for copyright to be extended from its current 50 year term to as much as 75 years plus the life of the artist. I am in strong opposition to any extension, but not in any particularly rigorous way, so I thought it would be good for me to examine the arguments to better understand why it is  our elected representatives in Europe seem determined to flush culture and common sense down the toilet.

Here is a summary of the main arguments put forward, and my rather amateur thoughts interjected (thanks Ben for some hints here too). This is based on a reply to an email sent to me by one my MEPs, anonymous because they have yet to reply to my request for publication.

Continue reading The Term Extension Argument

An Information Theory

Quoting a single statistic to support an argument is rarely very impressive, regardless whether the numbers themselves are right or wrong. I would say that most  statistics are nothing without context. Context is the air that statistics breathe and the engine which powers them to make a point.  Yet far too many people simply pluck them off a tree and offer them up as withered, emasculated and pale.

Here’s an example: the famous statement, “Half the world has never made a phone call.” The effect of this adage was analysed by Clay Shirky in 2002, and it’s a prime example of a number rendered powerless by a lack of context.

Continue reading An Information Theory

Knocking Out The Morvilles

Peter Morville has put together a list of twenty user experience deliverables with links to relevant resources and examples.

This is certainly interesting, and Morville is an interesting cove, not least because he’s been on the scene for so long. However, I can’t help reflecting on the fact that he is a consultant. Seen in that light, the “deliverables” culture he presents takes on a rather different hue, and I wonder how many of his admirers fully appreciate that.

Continue reading Knocking Out The Morvilles

The Copyright Term Extension Con

Let’s hope the march of paid lobbyists and other industry schills in Europe will be stopped by these clear and concise arguments against extending copyright in sound recordings. It’s rare that politicians don’t take the side of big business, but when the pandering to greed and the destruction of the public domain is this blatant, perhaps common sense will prevail. The European Commission is due to vote soon on the issue.

(Thanks Ben – Link)

Write to your MEP, as I have, and ask them what’s going on. What is copyright for, who does it benefit and why is it always being extended?

The Data of Dates

I’ve blogged before about how I think calendars are to dates what pie charts are to numbers, but recently I’ve been thinking a bit more about this issue.

The background to this was a discussion I had several months ago around the pros and cons of using calendars for date range selection, for example in booking a hotel. As with many design issues, this is one heavily encrusted with tradition and gripped by the dead hand of the “design pattern.” In an attempt to think about it more effectively, I cast the calendar (in the context of date range selection) as an anti-pattern: wasting space; requiring you to interact in more than one dimension; an inappropriate emphasis on days of the week, and other problems. In response, I came up with the idea of a time line instead. That too had flaws (not least because my initial approach attempted to build in too much into a single UI), but I think it had legs.

Continue reading The Data of Dates


From BoingBoing today (guest blogger Clay Shirky!):

Mark Hurst, the user experience expert [at], talks about Tesla — “time elapsed since labs attended” — a measure of how long it’s been since a company’s decision-makers (not help desk) last saw a real user dealing with their product or service. Measured in days, Meetup approaches a Tesla of 1.

Coincidentally, last week I suggested that we should have a company policy to allow all employees to have an opportunity to see a real person use our web site at least once every few months. I would think that MeetUp’s staff don’t number much above 20, so in a company numbering rather more than 10 times that, a low TESLA count measured in months wouldn’t be too bad.

Of course, this wouldn’t speed up our development cycle, but it might put a fire under some of us! I still have doubts as to exactly how “dead simple” it would be to recruit – and keep recruiting – normal people off the street every day. See my comment on the post – people (bless ’em) are all different, and the meet-and-greet overhead alone would be significant at least for somebody. But it’s certainly worth trying to institute.

I’m also tempted to make a comment about whether is any better or worse for this technique. But I won’t.

The Canary Is Doing Its Job

Phew. I’ve just got out from a large amount of IRC and email about this and this bug on Wikimedia. As of about midnight this evening, it’s boiled down to what seems like (at worst) some over-zealous censorship by the IWF which has now been corrected.

I spent a while hanging out on Be Internet’s new IRC channel watching a couple of people discussing the issues. One of the chatters was kicking up a fuss about it, while just about all the others thought they were over-reacting, mainly because it was about child porn. Kiddie porn is of course a terrible platform on which to make any case for libertarianism, so he/she obviously wasn’t going to get very far. The consensus was that the blocking of a Wikipedia page was of no consequence because most thought that the blocking of such material was acceptable.

What I found more interesting about the debate was the point when the lone voice tried to cast about for non-porn examples. The suggestion that ISPs might block sites with material that infringed copyright seemed rather more contentious. That, agreed all, would be unacceptable.

So, perhaps an interesting test of the net canary in some ways.

Proof That the Internet Needs Stopping

If you land on a web site you know nothing about and it asks you for your authentication details to another system, you should (if you have any sense) immediately hit the back button.

Yet with all the hand-wringing about phishing, identity theft and net crime in general, a site called apparently sees a business model in blithely asking people for their Facebook (and other) login information. They then use that to plonk all your network information into one place. Incredible, but true. I hope for all our sakes their fail abysmally.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing automatically bad about pooling all your social data (we have emerging protocols for that), but the idea of asking for authentication in this way completely undermines best practice for identity protection and general security. How on  earth are people supposed to navigate the datasphere safely if this kind of idiocy catches on?

This is even worse than the practice of sites like Facebook asking for your Gmail credentials so they can mine you for contacts (“We won’t store your login details – honest!”), if only because you have usually established a relationship with them first. There is also some measure of trust involved, however scantily considered that might be.

Yet another example of how, in 50 years time, people will look at the use of networks in the early 21st century and shake their heads in sheer disbelief. And providing the historians some evidence of the lunacy, Mashable thinks it’s all a-OK! Words fail me.

Well, I posted some words about it in a comment – couldn’t resist.

Will it rain?

Several years ago, I was looking at the then newly-redesigned BBC weather page. I marvelled at how bad I thought it was because it failed to answer the one question that I always want to know right off the bat when I ask for a weather forecast: will it rain? I don’t care about wind direction, millibars, visibility or even temperature much. I just want to know whether to take my umbrella.

So, I sent them a ranting email about it. A couple of years later, I found out by complete chance that the email had been read (and boggled over) by somebody I later ended up working with on the redesign at Oyster Partners. Whatasmallworld.

Anyway, here’s a site that almost gets it right. It just needs to express the forecast as a percentage as well, and I’d be as happy as Larry.

Empty Gesture

Ever since Minority Report brought gesture-based interfaces into the public eye, there are been periodic demonstrations of their evolution in the real world. Here’s where MIT’s John Underkoffler, one of the consultants who were used by the producers of Minority Report, has got to with his g-speak “spatial operating interface” (SOE):

As with most of the demonstrations of gesture-based and multi-touch interfaces, they are high on wow factor but rather low on suggestions for how such a UI would be useful. That’s not necessarily a problem of course – research is research. But it’s notable that whenever such interfaces are displayed, there are a large number of people who seem convinced of their utility.

Continue reading Empty Gesture

The Pirate’s Dilemma?

The Pirate’s Dilemma – How Youth Culture Is Reinventing Capitalism – Matt Mason, Free Press 2008

The subject of politics, as they say in college, is history with the work taken out, and history is politics with the brains taken out. While I wanted this book to be an analysis of the political, if not economic strata of Internet-age capitalism, it is in fact little more than a pleasant wind through the recent history of “underground” music, with some loose observations about how people make money along the way.

Mason’s thesis is that art, and in particular the art of making money, progresses by internalising marginal forms. Despite the fact that this should come as a surprise to nobody, we spend most of the book being persuaded. The potted histories he provides are on the whole well summarised: how Richard Hell founded the punk styles that came to be sold into the mainstream via VICE Magazine; how a teenager from London became a millionaire without having a record deal or any commercial airplay; how hip-hop came to be the ultimate commercialised youth culture by maintaining a lucrative stasis of “being real” while managing to funnel large amounts of money to a small amount of people, and so on. Nor does Mason seem to mind losing his way in this. At one point, an entire chapter (“Real Talk”) takes a detour into the biographies of assorted hip-hop artists, lapsing at times into simple hagiography. He treats us to various titbits along the way: step-by-step instructions on how to create a remix is doubtless informative, but leaves one wondering exactly how this helps us to understand the “reinvention of capitalism.”
Continue reading The Pirate’s Dilemma?

The Opposite of Search?

Just noticed this old idea dressed up as a new one on TechCrunch. Out of curiosity, but mainly because I thought it might not be as lame as it first looked, I installed the Firefox add-on and it showed me this:

“Kickass search results”, eh? Not only is it yet another Alexa clone, but isn’t this opposite of search?

A real bugbear of mine is that popularity is far too often confused with relevance. The fact that people can self-suggest relevance based on the perceived preferences of others is highly insidious. Even if it didn’t, just because 20,000 people are looking at a website doesn’t mean I should be as well. Worse, it’s usually easy to game the system by exploiting these effects. I’m sure that’s how Stock, Aitken and Waterman sustained much of their output, for example.

Things are so bad that even the BBC News website now shows links to “popular stories.” The editorial effect of having the BBC decide for you what is and what is not relevant is bad enough, but to compound that by presenting “popularity” as a desirable filter for news is just evil. So it is with OneRiot. Don’t count on finding anything that you’ve not found already.

Knocking ’em Out

I’ve not been writing (that’s what we posh people call blogging) nearly enough. Look at me: two posts a month in the last 18 months or so, yet my life is a sumptuous feast of complex events, rare occurrences and fascinating adventures – and that’s just with my UX hat on. Why, just today, some designs I’d done several months ago went into UAT!

So, I’ve been looking to other writers for comparison. Seth Godin fairly blasts it out on his blog. How does he keep it up? It’s all good stuff considering he’s probably writing it with one hand while chairing some huge marketing meeting of corporate pillars with the other.

It’s a funny thing this writing business. Maybe one day I’ll find out what it’s all about. Stand by for a book review next though.

Where Will Content Lead Us?

Nothing is completely new, it just evolves.  So it is with content on the web: the traditional free print model of allowing access to content as a way of getting readers to do something profitable has been transmogrified under the influence of SEO and Google’s all-powerful PageRank algorithms.

It now doesn’t matter how good your product is, or how satisfied your customers are – if you have any competition, you need Google on your side to pull in the punters. What the web gives with the promise of reach, it takes away with the threat of obscurity. The need for Google visibility is, to say the least, pressing.

What’s particularly interesting is that as a side-effect of this need, the generation (some would say abuse) of “related content” becomes as important to businesses as traditional goods and services. So it’s not enough to sell spanners – you need to have articles about using spanners that get linked to and talked about. How to open a tin can with a spanner, the history of the spanner, using spanners in dressmaking, how spanners won the war, and so on. Such content fertilises profitability on the web because when people link to it, and Google sees the links and indexes the content, you’re visible – hopefully beyond your competition.

So far, so Seth.

Continue reading Where Will Content Lead Us?

From eBay – Some Design

I’ve just sent this to eBay in response to their request for feedback on their new item page design:

“You are definitely on the right track with this.

For years eBay’s page layouts have been painfully bad. Not just run-of-the-mill poor like Amazon or, but wilfully, painfully, awful. While most sites merely ignore user experience, eBay positively buries it.

With the new item page design, you have at last discovered the use of typography and colour to aid the presentation, and tabs to remove much of the initial distraction. You seem to have actually produced a design based on some kind of imagination of how your customers use your site. That is something I am deeply grateful for.

So for this I congratulate you with all my heart, and hope that future design changes show a similar awakening to improvements that in many cases are about a decade overdue.


Here, in case they change them, are the screen shots for the record:

  • Old layout – a usecrime in progress
  • New layout – not at all bad in comparison
  • Message windowthe worst piece of information design normal people are ever likely to encounter on the web. Just stunningly bad.

Prototyping Tools Playoff

I must have followed (and contributed to) dozens of conversations about web prototyping tools over the years. Having skimmed through yet another thread on the topic this week (this time on one of the LinkedIn UX groups), pretty much the same pattern repeats itself. Some swear by Visio, others Axure. Some say Fireworks has no equal for the task. PowerPoint might also get a few fans. There is always somebody who declares that Omnigraffle wins hands down. Somebody then usually mentions iRise, sometimes Flash, and then perhaps we’ll get a left-field suggestion like Acrobat, Excel or some Photoshop plugin. Like all “what’s best” discussions though, it ends inconclusively, and usually on a tangent about something unrelated.

But what if we were to organise a playoff? A playoff would not determine the “best” tool (boring as is may be, I think that depends on circumstance), but it might throw up some interesting observations.  If nothing else, it would be fun to do.

Continue reading Prototyping Tools Playoff

MoD Data Loss – Can It Get Any Worse?

Another day, another… hardly a week goes by without… if I had a fiver for…. I’ve lost count of how…

The latest incident of data loss really, really plumbs the depths. I’ve started to pay less attention to the detail of such cases recently because it’s plain they’re simply endemic, human failings and not something we can somehow cure by tinkering around the edges. But I’ve just been reading this, which says:

“The portable drive contains the names, addresses, passport numbers, dates of birth and driving licence details of around 100,000 serving personnel across the Army, Royal Navy and RAF, plus their next-of-kin details.”

Wow. Just… wow.

The icing on the cake is that it was all on a portable drive as well. Words fail me. All that data in ONE PLACE.

Continue reading MoD Data Loss – Can It Get Any Worse?

Will Web 3.0 increase a user’s experience?

I’ve just spent about 10 minutes of my life trying to re-boot my mind after it suffered a cognitive blue screen of death on reading the questionWill Web 3.0 decrease or increase a user’s experience?

Deon Jenkins, an information architect at IBM, asks this question on a LinkedIn forum I’m a member of. It fell into my inbox like some kind of existential hand grenade this evening.

Every now and again, you have to evaluate what it is you are doing in life that’s so important. I find that a lot of that evaluation comes down to the value of the language you use in your work. If the words work, make sense, and aid the progress of ideas between you and the outside world, then things are probably going OK. If they’re anything like what Jenkins is using, you’re screwed.

Just as various people in the banking industry must have worried what would happen when all that toxic debt was discovered, people (well, me anyway) sometimes worry that the whole experience design and usability thing is being ridden out to the wilder plains of lunacy. I just hope Mr Jenkins has his cover story worked out.

iTunes UK and the NMPA

Apple have threatened iTunes-listening Britons with the closure of their iTunes store.

I think this is unlikely to happen, but if it does then the P2P networks will get rather more traffic, thereby providing even more proof that the publishing industry just doesn’t understand what’s happening. Every time they try to throw their weight around like this, it make them weaker and the darknet (1Mb Word file) stronger.

Be that as it may, now might also be a good time to point out an inaccuracy in the BBC’s reporting on this. They say:

Apple pays an estimated 70% of digital music revenue to record companies which in turn pass on a percentage to artists [my emphasis]. It is that percentage that is expected to be changed on Thursday.

Actually, I think the National Music Publishers’ Association pays this percentage to songwriters and composers of works via the publishers that the NMPA represents. And (surprise!) the publishers cream off between 3 to 15%. In many cases the composers are not the same as the artists that perform the works, and many will in fact be dead (the money goes to their relatives, estates or licensees, or nowhere if these cannot be found).

But who cares? The way the money works in music is – to say the least – opaque. With the exception of a tiny minority of super-stars like Cliff Richard and Simply Red, when you listen to your favourite band, you are listening to indentured servants. What will happen when we realise that the copyright system overall is completely iniquitous? In 1994 (MMC, 1996), 10 UK composers received more than £100,000 (from performing and mechanical royalties). How many people working in the UK music industry that year who were not composers earned more than £100,000?

I’m betting that it was rather more than 10.

No, that really IS my surname!

Southern Electric are total muppets. Accessing their site using FF3 under Linux shows nothing but the Flash background (I hardly ever find sites that are completely broken these days). Not only that, when I  try to update my profile, they tell me to choose a “proper” surname!

Insult your customers!

Could there be a less effective wording for an “invalid character” message? When it comes to something as sensitive as people’s names, if you can’t parse characters in them, just silently replace with spaces on submit. What Southern Electric are doing is just insulting.

Ubiquity: The Command Line Comes Home

When Apple launched the Mac, one of its supposed great advantages was that it was graphical. “Just point and click” – what could be easier? Certainly better than the awful DOS (or even UNIX) command line! The command line was thus condemned to be seen as symbolic of the old school. Arcane commands typed in a green or black screen – unfriendly, cold and unsympathetic.

Apple may not have intended this to be the case, but I have always thought the opprobrium of the command line to have been an over reaction exploited by clueless marketeers. It is in fact exactly the opposite of what its detractors have it to be, and I believe will become central to the way we use computers, just as computers become central to the way we live our lives. The arrival of the Internet, and specifically “Web 2.0”, means the CLUI’s time has come.

Continue reading Ubiquity: The Command Line Comes Home

Is The Future Really Mystery Meat?

I’ve just been watching this video from Adaptive Path in response to Mozilla Lab’s call for participation. The video seems to be more of a PR play for Adaptive Path though, and not a serious attempt at design direction – which is a bit disappointing, but no matter.

There are a number of things that can be said about the concepts presented, but one thing in particular caught my attention: the appearance – stunningly – of mystery meat navigation. This time it was in the form of radial menus and clouds of anonymous icons that stay anonymous even after they achieve focus.

Continue reading Is The Future Really Mystery Meat?

Delicious the Movie

Here’s a fun, and quite interesting, post-launch “movie” of the changes made in the new delicious UI. You have to be fairly familiar with the old one to appreciate the differences, of course.

Oddest thing I’ve noticed with the new design so far: in common with the old design, they seemed obsessed with limiting the number of links on a page to a measly 10 before paginating. Unless there is some awfully negative side-effect, pagination should really be delayed for as long as possible. Webtorqe’s pagination is set to kick in at 1000 items (I have 285 posts at the moment so you won’t be seeing it for a while). I can only assume this ruthless truncation of pages on delicious is down to performance reasons because it’s certainly a UX downer. Surely 10 is ridiculously low though?

Incidentally, my favourite change is the fact that they’ve finally got and not that damn domain I could never remember.

Majectical Electrical

Michael Forrest has his new album out today. I’m downloading it now, and I commend you to do the same. It reminds me of artists as diverse as Cobra Killer through ATR to Momus and Barry Adamson. This is definitely going out on my ShowCenter.

I’m always interested in the way artists choose to distribute their work – in may cases more so than the work itself. Forrest is notable not least by adding some weight to a casual observation I made about a similar online distribution of a work by Paul Robertson. Forrest distributes the work via the Internet direct to the audience, but this time imposes a time window of 25 days. He also says nothing about any licence.

In the absence of any further information about the license, we must assume it defaults to restrictive copyright. However, I find this an intriguing development not only because Forrest is silent on this point, but also because he invokes the concept of scarcity.

In the digital age, there is copyright and shades of it meditated by CC. There is also the idea that nothing matters as long as its free. I don’t quite know how to deal with scarcity in either context. Perhaps I’m making too much of all this – but my point is that I think those who have championed alternative licensing models may have misjudged the way the public will use (or ignore) the provisions of such schemes. If REM can release videos under a perl licence, “rip, mix, burn” may start to apply to more than just the work itself.

EU Parliament Net Neutrality Attack!

Argh! The reform of the “European law on electronic communications” (AKA the “Telecoms Package”) will be debated in the European Parliament on 7th July – Monday!

Why the sudden flap? Well, it seems they’re at it again. Here’s what’s going on: take one, large, boring piece of regulatory legislation up for routine amends that most MEPs have little interest in. Insert some clauses that bypass the rule of law to allow unregulated surveillance and denials of the right to privacy. Make sure nobody notices. Wait for it to get rubber-stamped by a snoozing bunch of representitives.

That, my friends is democracy at work in Brussles whether we like it or not. All we can do is get on the wires and pummel our representitives to do something.

More info here and here.

Here’s my letter just sent:

Continue reading EU Parliament Net Neutrality Attack!

We-Think: Documenting the Present

I’ve recently read We-Think by Charles Leadbeater, having attended one of his talks a couple of months ago. I thought I’d record my thoughts on it.

Books about the socio-political or cultural effects of the Internet are rolling fast off the presses right now. I’m now feeling a little less like the pallid geek I once was. The penny has dropped, even in the hallows of Downing Street (Leadbeater was a Labour advisor under Tony Blair for a while), that something rather important is happening out there in cyberspace. Territory is now being claimed by everyone from the plainly trivial likes of Macolm Gladwell and Andrew Keen, to the highly constructive, if sometimes baffling, Clay Shirky and Seth Godin.

Leadbeater sets about documenting the various phenomena he finds on the net to support his formulation of what he calls “we-think.” In a nutshell, we-think is the practice of solving problems or enhancing the quality of life by the free exchange of ideas and resources. Such activity tends to move from the periphery to the centre until – if it survives – it pervades the normal way of doing things. Examples of course are free/libre and open source software, but also offline activity evident in grass-roots initiatives in developing countries that spring up independently of governmental or official sanction. All this, he says, may be a new phenomenon in modern history, but a return to aspects of ancient modes of life which hitherto had been sunk beneath the waves of industrialism and refinements of capitalism that came with it. Well, I’d by that for a dollar, even if I can’t understand Leadbeater’s connection between a third-world micro-loans system and playing World of Warcraft.

Continue reading We-Think: Documenting the Present

Removing The Home Page

In many cases, the design and content of a “home page” – the first page you see when you view a web site from its document root – owes its existence more to tradition than sense. Perhaps a home page speaks to the idea of a “cover” in the same way as a cover for a book. However, web sites don’t have pages that need protecting from the outside world – quite the opposite in fact. In the age of Google and ever-increasing findability, providing a summary of the site is often unnecessary. There are several other reasons to abandon home pages as well. Here are a few thoughts I’ve been having about the issue.

Continue reading Removing The Home Page

Calendars and Date Range Selection

One thing that bothers me about “design patterns” is that they don’t always seem to be the best method of solving a design problem. In many cases, patterns are patterns simply because they are popular. This of course is a phenomenon not limited to design (music, for example, is another case in point). However, it becomes particularly frustrating for designers when a sub-optimal pattern then gets in the way of better designs because the pattern becomes something that people expect. Significant modification of the pattern is seen as negative, even if those modifications are demonstrably better. But you can’t do something better by doing the same thing as everyone else.

One example of a design pattern being a poor solution to a problem is the use of pop-up calendars to allow date range selections on form fields. Here’s an example of what I mean. I’ve chosen an example of a single calendar for selecting ranges because I think it illustrates better the points I’m about to make. A more common example is the “from/to” calendar: separate calendars for the “from” date and the “to” date, usually as separate fields on the form.

Continue reading Calendars and Date Range Selection No OpenID – Fail

While I yield to no man in my admiration of Tim Rowe, I cannot accept his latest invitation to join him on This is because I have resolved to boycott any new service unless it supports OpenID.

I have written to Faviki about this. Let’s see what happens (nothing probably), but in my opinion, these days any new service not supporting OpenID deserves to fail. I have upwards of fifty different logins for on line systems and it’s driving me nucking futs. It’s got to the stage where the cost of having to comply with yet another “must contain two numbers and capital letter” idiocy is just too much unless the payoff of demonstrably huge.

While I’m at it, Marcus has been doing some creative thinking on ways to manage on line systems without login, or at least without the traditional hassle of having to remember user IDs and passwords. He also drew my attention to OAuth the other day. It seems very interesting – if only I could understand it.

Joi Ito: Why Mobile Hasn’t Happend Yet

In my dreams, I like to think that if I ever made a lot of money I would be like Joi Ito. He must rank as one of the most worthwhile people on the planet, and somebody that I’d love to meet. Today, he writes an astute post about the “mobile Internet” and why nothing very interesting is happening in that space, nor will it ever while the current closed systems exist.

Incidentally, he recently re-vamped his blog, so even if you have no interest in the subject matter, it’s well worth a look: there’s some excellent design going on there.

Administrivia II

Server upgraded, Webtorque will be looking rather sqiff for a while until I work out the WordPress theme that I heavily hacked up and forgot to note any changes to… Enjoy.

[LATER] Pretty much done now. Wish I could work out a way of removing that pesky horizontal line beneath the header image.

The User Experience of Britannica Online

I have a 12 month subscription to Britannica Online. This was advertised as a way of letting me link to full Britannica articles free of charge from my blog, should I so wish. Indeed, have a read of this entry, which you would not have been able to see unless you had been a subscriber (try linking to it directly – clever, eh?).

I assume this is an Old Media marketing ploy to get me to buy a real subscription once my free 12 months is up, or at least a tactic to fight back against Wikipedia or something, but that doesn’t concern me here. Instead, I couldn’t resist the temptation to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Continue reading The User Experience of Britannica Online

The Time Is Now for Local Networks

My ongoing experience with Tiscali’s appalling broadband offering has made me research the overall broadband industry in the UK. The picture is now becoming alarmingly ugly. Something has to happen to avert a disaster, and that something may be local networks. But before I elaborate on the solution (although not a new idea), let me outline the problem.

There seem to be several horsemen of the information apocalypse riding over the horizon towards us. First, there is market economics and the primary fact that the ISPs have clearly oversold their capacity. This has resulted in hoards of disgruntled consumers wanting access to content that is increasingly out of their reach, while the ISPs compete on price after having exhausted what (if anything) they spent on infrastructure. This is also compounded by many other related factors including the BT Wholesale monopoly, the feeding frenzy whipped up by the 3G auctions, and the subsequent reluctance of network providers to invest in better delivery platforms after the spectacular failure of 3G technologies to deliver.

Continue reading The Time Is Now for Local Networks

I Had No Idea

My god this is awful. The entire weekend my net connection with Tiscali has been so slow that YouTube, podcasts, BBC news and even Gmail have been pretty much unusable. I tried running a speed test just now and it timed out!

I now realise why I’ve always found broadband hell stories so boring – it was because I was living in a HomeChoice bubble! Broadband (DSL at least) has seriously crashed and burned in the four years we’ve been on our HomeChoice LLU cable. There was I wondering why people would grumble about getting less than 8Mb when our 2Mb connection gave me more than I could possibly download at speeds I was perfectly happy with. That’s because it was running at pretty much full speed the whole time.Now that we’ve been booted on to Tiscali’s execrable DSL system, I know what all the fuss is about. This is a disgrace. Something has to be done.

Current candidates are Sky and Virgin, and possibly Be. The complicator is the TV though. Tiscali is a TV/Broadband/Phone bundle. Coincidentally, FreeSat launches next month – or does it? Despite being a huge BBC/ITV joint venture, it seems more like a top-secret SAS mission. Not even Lord Grade’s mother knows the truth, I’ll be bound. Mind you, if it’s all a Great British Cock-up (as I rather suspect), there’s always FreeSat From Sky. Good to know we still have good branding agencies in this country, eh?

The No Net, No TV Challenge

For the past two weeks, and coincidentally at exactly the same time as my family have been away, I have had no Internet access, and very little TV reception at home.

I count myself as a pretty intense Internet user (although I watch very little TV), so was interested to see what would happen without any connectivity. This was not by choice of course, but due to a problem with my Tiscali (formerly Homechoice) set top box, which for some reason Tiscali took 13 days to sort out.

Continue reading The No Net, No TV Challenge

When Films are Free

I don’t watch nearly enough films, but my attention has been drawn to two animations recently. Both are free.

Firstly, the Blender project has brought out a new film (I wanted to embed it here but it breaks the page). It has a CC licence, and looks like an impressive bit of 3D animation (all the models and source files are also provided on the CD).

Secondly, there is the incredible new production from Paul Robertson: Kings of Power 4 Billion %. I assume this is public domain, but he is clearly is too cool to say anything about anything as boring as licensing, so I’m not sure. I’ve now watched it about … eighty times.

Kings of Power 4 Billion

See also the wonderful anime geek flame war between the kuns and chans in the first thread on Robertson’s Livejournal page announcing the film. It’s Internet gold, I tell you.


For some reason I’ve been noticing a lot of greenwashing recently. At work we have plastic recycling bins along with receptacles for waste paper and cans. This is good because we get free bottles of water, juice and other modern comestibles. So, at least by recycling we can do something to offset the wanton destruction on the environment that these things bring. Incredibly though, I find myself pulling out three of four empty milk, drink and other plastic bottles from the general waste bin, and putting these into their correct place. Every day.

Are the people that throw plastic bottles into the general waste the same people that also print out everything they see on their screens? Some of the things I have seen by printers (uncollected) are mind blowing in both their pointlessness and sheer volume. At LBi all the printers doubled as shelves for mounds of unclaimed printouts. If it weren’t for the cleaners, we would have probably been able to cover them completely with this jetsam by the end of each week.

Expedia, however, practice one thing that is both convenient and green (as a side effect at least): “secure printing.” I’d not encountered this before I arrived, but everyone’s printer drivers default to this mode. When you send something to print, it is held by the printer itself in a queue shown on the console. Your print job awaits the input of your password before the printer actually prints it. This is convenient because it ensures your job is not lost inside somebody else’s run, or misplaced before you can get to the printer. It also removes the need pathetically to spam the office with “Please do not print to the printer in the next 10 mins because I need to do 80 copies of my report now.”

It is also of course green because it means the aforementioned print lunatics are unable to waste energy: the secure queue is automatically erased at the end of the day.

Identity Cards are Useful

A friend of mine recently said they thought ID cards could be useful. They said they thought one day they might forget to take their passport to the airport or on the Eurostar. It struck me that I’d not blogged about my thoughts on this (and hey, what’s a blog for if it’s not for idle pontification?).

ID cards will no doubt be very useful – in the same way as DRM is useful, or restrictive EULA contracts are useful. What matters is the consequences of that usefulness.

Take one small example that I’m interested in: the fact that the Identity and Passport Service today has 3,800 employees. That’s 3,800 potential points of data leaks, mistakes, abuse, impersonation, blackmail and other chaos.

Continue reading Identity Cards are Useful

Exiled from Plaxo

I ‘ve had a login on Plaxo for about two years now and have only received a couple of invites from people I know, but I’ve had a several in the last couple of months. Maybe it’ll be the next Facebook?

I won’t be there if Plaxo does explode though. Plaxo is so far my only OpenID casualty. Since trying to convert my account to using OpenID, I’m now in exile from the system. Previously, this wasn’t a problem, but today I had an invite from the mighty Nick Crascke. Since anyone who is anyone would jump at the chance to accept such an invitation, I naturally followed the invite link. But it hit an infinite loop on some OpenID request requesting something on Plaxo requesting something on

A similar thing happened with and invite from Jon Curnow a few months ago. I tried mailing Plaxo. They replied with a solution to my OpenID woes. It seems I’ve got two duplicate accounts at the moment, one of which is my OpenID attached one, the other now orphaned in Plaxospace. Or something. But the fix sounded horrendously complicated so I thought better of it.

I suppose I could counter-invite all my invites… or something. Anyway, here’s the video (2.7Mb AVI) of what I’m getting. I should show it to Plaxo’s support I suppose…

Persona Insight? You Decide

At last, people are openly acknowledging that persona development, or at least the dogma that comes with it, is weird. I’ve been rude about Alan Cooper before, but this is another chance to stick the boot in.

I blame Cooper for coming up with the wonderful idea of personas. They’re great for summarising research. They help people – anyone really – get closer to design solutions when things get complicated. In my opinion, however, the problem space needs to be complex or personas are more trouble than they’re worth. Well, that’s one of their problems anyway (a bit like use cases really).

Continue reading Persona Insight? You Decide

Video: How Difficult Can It Get?

With various digital media building up on my little hard drive, I thought I’d get one of those media streaming boxes so that I can watch or listen it all in my living room downstairs. TED talks, podcasts of various kinds, camcoder movies – ah lovely.

I knew video formats were going to be a bit problematic, but I had no real idea of the sheer jungle of codecs, containers, incompatabilities and various other weirdness that’s out there. It would be hard to imagine a more ridiculously arcane situation than we currently have with video. Here’s my experience with a Pinnacle ShowCenter 200 so far:

Continue reading Video: How Difficult Can It Get?

Serves Me Right

Regular readers will know that I had a free mobile phone last year, thanks to a 100% cashback deal. This year however, I’ve not been so lucky.

After hearing nothing from Phones 2 U Direct.Co.Uk Ltd after my first cashback claim in September, I served them a court order to get a response. They replied to the court, admitting they owed me the money. That was over three weeks ago, and I’ve still heard nothing. Now I see that they’ve gone under.

They will be served a judgement by default for non-payment, but it now doesn’t matter much. Oh well, I think I’ll write to their MD, a Mr David Ellis of Hartley, Longfield, Kent DA3 8EX, and send him a copy of a letter I have for Arun Sarin about the conduct of his company and why Vodafone should keep better tabs on their affiliates.

It’s good to talk.

Administrivia: Site Move

Webtorque will be moving servers soon (maybe this week… maybe next). I’d be delighted if anyone actually notices, but we may be down for a day or so while I get the web server back up. There’s a chance I might delete everything in the process – indeed sometimes I want to do that anyway, but a sugary sentimentality prevents me.

Another Gear Shift in the Cross-Country Rally of Life

Expedia Inc.
Travel broadens the mind, and so it is that today I leave LBi to start work with Expedia. In my case I shall be joining as an interaction designer.

Expedia makes a lot of sense. Having worked for about ten months on First Choice Holidays while at Wheel last year (although my work has yet to go live following their merger with TUI), I see travel as a suitably complex experience design challenge. Expedia is also a real online business. Not for me the clicks and mortar, or the pains of transformation to that.

Not since IPC and my involvement with Yachting and Boating World have I worked in-house though, so this will be a change. I feel sad to leave LBi though, and wish everyone there well.

I wonder if this was a co-incidence?

We Love Firmware

The two things that have most irked me about many devices I’ve owned is response time and shoddy UI. Usually, I assume there’s not much the manufacturer can do about response time, so I’m pretty forgiving on that point. But shoddy UI is another matter. Mobile phone UIs have of course been done to death on this point (although it’s fun to read this one), so I won’t harp on that – too much. However, I was recently pleased to discover a way out from bone-headed implementations or crass, commercially driven design. Free firmware – once beyond my powers of geek – is now well within it.

Continue reading We Love Firmware

Now that’s what I call user experience!

Last week I got a mail from somewhere announcing the launch of a new property website called, so I thought I’d have a look. It’s a pretty nifty residential property sales site: good web2.0 thinking going on, nicely executed. Whoever put it together knows their stuff.

But it has a few things I thought could do with improving, so as is my habit, I bunged them a mail with my thoughts. I got a reply thanking me, and that was that. Meanwhile, I continued to play with the site.

Yesterday, I arrived home to find they had sent me a Waitrose Wine giftset in the post, with a note from their CEO thanking me for my feedback!


(PS: Happy new year all!)

SingStar Plug

I’ve not worked on an FMCG site in ages, so I’m taking the liberty of plugging this one, which we did for Sony Computer Entertainment this year. went fully live in all territories last week.

I’m on there too if you look hard enough. It’s running at about 1,000 registrations a day right now so it might get rather interesting in a while. My favourite so far though is this guy. Also, while we’re on the trivia, the video files uploaded by users are transcoded to FLV on the fly by a service called Hey!Watch at 0.07€ a pop. Props to them.

Monoculture Reloaded

I used to think I had a handle on the state of spam and malware. I chuckled at the obfuscated spam content, marvelled at the botnets, and secretly admired the general ingenuity of those skript kidz and their r00tkits.

But I didn’t know the half of it until I read this (670K PDF – thanks to Francois for sending it to me)

“Professional Paranoid” Peter Gutmann, of the Department of Computer Science in Auckland, lists a deluge of flat-out evil business models and techniques in use by spammers and online criminals. This assessment of the current (but fast-moving) state of the industry fairly leaves me quaking.

Continue reading Monoculture Reloaded

Banking Innovation

Well, sort of. The recent sale loss of my data by the Revenue prompted me to change my bank account this weekend. Not that I think I really needed to after the fiasco at HMRC, but I thought some rate tarting was in order.

Alliance & Leicester have two interesting things in their online banking interface: a “unique image and phrase combination” and a fake logout (no, really).

The former is quite interesting. You are given a picture to which you attach some phrase known only to you. When you’re shown that picture, you give them the phrase as part of the login process. I’m not sure how secure or otherwise this is, since the temptation to simply describe the image is very strong. However, as long as it’s used as an anti-phishing method (which it appears to be) then it’s rather nice. Would have preferred to have been given their public key for some 256-bit blowfish goodness, but hey. Who wants PKI when they can have a sand dune to look at?

The latter is a somewhat surprising bit of UI design. I finish my session and log out… but what’s this? I’m not logged out – I’m being sold to! Good job I wasn’t in an Internet cafe, because the first time this happened, I didn’t notice the message. I was so surprised, I’ve shot a video of it (1.1Mb ogg).

French Thinking

I see this news from France last week. It’s an interesting innovation in the copyfight, but it’ll be a flop. With margins already wafer-thin, ISPs will be reluctant to ban their customers, and those that do will be removing people who will be clever enough to get round the bans.

However, it’s measures like this that might eventually mean the Darknet moves off ISP-controlled networks. Keep an eye on wireless: is dead, but others like it may well rise again. And this time, they’ll be encrypted… – Nice Design

Only just discovered I like the overall design very much. It’s pushing the the stereotypical “web 2.0” conventions on rather well: desaturated colours, rounded corners, etc., but it’s very well thought out – everything is there for a reason. I also note some interesting things going on: no scroll bars (just up/down arrows), no “handles” for users – it’s Facebook-style real names.

Continue reading – Nice Design

Wikipedia and Conflicts of Interest

Will Wikipedia survive the constant sniping its been getting about quality, style and everything else? In the last few weeks, I’ve observed (nay, been involved with) two issues relating to their conflict of interest policy. To save the blushes, I won’t divulge who was involved, but the first incident started when a PR operative at a medium-sized company decided that because a rival company had an entry in Wikipedia, they should have one too.

Continue reading Wikipedia and Conflicts of Interest

Will Thermo Be Too Hot for Axure?

With the advent of Thermo “some time next year” things are at last hotting up in the RIA design space.

Regular readers of this blog (if there are any such people) will know that I have been wondering for a long time in a somewhat Pooh-bearish way about the future of “The Designer” in the “The Development Process.”

While this is hardly a topic unique to this blog, my particular angle on it can be summed up by the following idea. Designers (by which I mean anyone who specifies a system that other people build) will get increasingly nowhere unless the tools they use to describe their designs work directly with the tools used to implement them.
Continue reading Will Thermo Be Too Hot for Axure?

Won’t Anyone Think of the Children?

When I’m murdered in my bed by a gang of bored teenagers, I’ll try to remember to blame the RIAA as I expire.

Some issues are too big to arrive at any useful perspective until you have thought and experienced a great many ideas relating to them. For a long while now, I have tried to fathom what it is about my concern, not to say alarm, about the increasingly draconian imposition of copyright law and the erosion of fair use that has come with it.

Continue reading Won’t Anyone Think of the Children?

Too Loud To Ignore

I am usually completely unsuccessful in hiding my glee at the demise of music publishers, and this post is no exception. I have been hoping for the last few years that what started as a trickle would become a flood. And now with Radiohead and even (gasp!) Madonna, it surely has.

I think the penny is dropping. If you are an artist, you now have a choice to become an artist and a business, or an artist and a slave.

Facebook, Google and Nothing to Hide

I’ve been looking at my Facebook profile in the light of their recent decision to make members’ profile data indexable by Google and other search engines. Trying to make sense of what I thought about this, and about privacy in general, I found the works of Daniel J. Solove, associate professor of law at the George Washington University Law School. He specialises in privacy and its relation to information technology.

Looking at his list of publications, I thought I’d get a primer on his work by reading a short essay called “I’ve Got Nothing to Hide” and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy (240Kb PDF)

Anyone who’s interested in privacy issues needs to read this. I’ve always been frustrated by the “nothing to hide” argument, trotted out whenever somebody complains about privacy violations (I note it turned up in defence of CCTV cameras in a letter to Metro last week).
Continue reading Facebook, Google and Nothing to Hide

“We have a diagram of this.”

I’ve been thinking about “info graphics” again, and what a tricky area this is. It’s doubly so because a large part of what I do for a living is information design.

There is essentially an “emperor’s new clothes” problem prevalent in the production of information graphics. To me, the vast majority of subjects that I see addressed by such graphics (in particular, complex ones) would be better expressed in words – either spoken or written.

I recently found a quote by William S. Cleveland, a scholar in the field of graphical representation of data. He sums up the background to the problem I’m wrestling with:

“When a graph is made, quantitative and categorical information is encoded by a display method. Then the information is visually decoded. This visual perception is a vital link. No matter how clever the choice of the information, and no matter how technologically impressive the encoding, a visualization fails if the decoding fails. Some display methods lead to efficient, accurate decoding, and others lead to inefficient, inaccurate decoding.”

William S. Cleveland, The Elements of Graphing Data, Hobart Press, 1994, p. 1

Continue reading “We have a diagram of this.”

Vodafone Broken Calling

I was in Spain last week, on the Vodafone ES network, and dialled a wrongly-constructed number. The call didn’t connect (just went dead, no ringing) and I got this message. That number at the bottom is the number I was calling, properly formatted. If the system knows how to format the number – why not just dial it and not pester me?

The notion of “service design” can’t come on these companies too soon if you ask me.

Euro IA, Barcelona

Eric Reiss mentioned that at conferences in the States you have pre-conference workshops, whereas in Europe you just have lots of drinking. At the start of Day Two of Euro IA – I’m feeling rather sleepy after the cumulative effects of the the pre-conference party, and all the tappas last night. Hope I can hold out for the rest of the proceedings today!

It’s been great to meet lots of people I’ve been corresponding with – and so many people with whom I’ve not but who know my name from my various rantings. So far, everyone’s been kind about me, which is nice – despite my hogging the mic on the floor on most sessions. I realise I abandoned my post somewhat at the poster session to talk to others about theirs, and take some of the 500+ photos that I’ve got to edit down when I get back…
So far my notes are full of things like sentiment analysis techniques (Peter Van Dijk), cognitive organisation of requirements (Wiebe & Confer) and the incredible amount of data that Yahoo! Spain crunches per week (Ricardo Baeza-Yates) among other things. Today there’s service design and cross-context IA and other stuff – but it’s a two-tracker so I can’t have all of it (and we leave early for the airport later this afternoon).
No doubt I’ll be expanding on some of these things in later posts (although I may do this on Stream since this is in fact an expensed trip) – there’s a lot to digest – and it’s all been top-flight stuff.

Putting People in Control of Personal Data

I was thinking about how much I like using OpenID. I’m registered with, who could do with ironing out some kinks in their user experience, but it’s good enough.

One thing struck me after reading Tomas Baekdal’s excellent blog post on the subject of privacy policies. I summarised this in my comment on his post, but to cut to the chase:

“… statement of intent is all very well, [but] the practical reality of the situation is that data leaks. No matter how much you “respect” the people that gave you their data, respect alone won’t stop you leaving 10,000 names and addresses on a laptop in the local KFC.

This is why the real battleground needs to shift to putting users in control of how much data they release – regardless of privacy policies.

I would like to see, for example, the introduction of revocable keys for personal data. Have my name and address, but only in a form encrypted to you, with a key I can revoke at any time.”

Continue reading Putting People in Control of Personal Data

Byrne/Eno Pean Again

I’m very rarely inspired to write about anything. When I do, it’s usually in reaction to something from outside. It doesn’t come “from me” in the artistic sense. Admittedly, I don’t write much uplifting stuff though – it’s mostly boring. This post is different however because I don’t know where it came from.

I was going though some bookmarks today (I remember a time when I thought I’d never use a bookmark manager), and saw My Life in the Bush of Ghosts go by. This, you may recall, is the incredible album from 1981 that turned into an incredible re-issue in 2006 accompanied by the CC-licensing of two of its tracks, both in their original 24-track form. This to me was a combination of two great tastes that taste great together: music and copyleft.

I’d not been to the site since just after its launch in 2006, when it had about five or six remixes uploaded. Now it has masses, and they are all wonderful.

I once thought we had lost the ancient art of the remix – the fuel of all music from the stone age to jazz. From about the 1970’s we witnessed the onset of the copyright plague that incubated the flesh-eating virus of pap pop, SAW and disco (we had to fight the punk wars to stay free – never forget that). But sites like this remind me that I was wrong.

I like being wrong. In the end, it feels better than being right.

Women on the Web

The female twist to Ofcom’s annual report today on the use of new media is interesting. One view of Internet use that’s always intensely annoyed me is that it’s a solitary medium best suited to male, sociopathic geeks. That may have been true of the web for a brief period between the decline of the dial-up BBS and the arrival of HTML 3.2, but with Usenet and the embers of the London dial-up scene in the mean time, my own online experience has always has been highly social. I assume this aspect of the web in it’s 2.0 incarnation is also one reason why the female audience now seems to be taking the ascendency in some areas.
I hope this will put paid to those who see being “on the Internet” as some kind of mindless activity akin to watching TV. May it make such an attitude seem as ridiculous as berating somebody for “reading books” or “having fun.”

Max Hole: It’s Businesses as Usual

Max Hole is President, Asia Pacific Region and Executive Vice-President, Marketing and A&R for Universal Music Group International. He has some soothing words for anyone who thinks the internets might be a bit worrying for music publishers.

When he’s using words like “… record companies … sign and encourage great music by great artists. This will never change”, you know they’re in trouble. At least, in trouble in the long term. One thing that’s true in business as in life is that nothing is forever. Mr Hole’s analysis of the situation for record companies seems to be based on the idea that nothing will, or really needs to, change for the music publishing industry. Musicians have no interest in business or marketing… consumers demand much more than just the music… pirates are sapping the ability to find talent… We’ve heard it all before. If you repeat it often enough, it might just make it true.

Hole completely fails to address what happens if, as seems at least likely, the making, discovery and consumption of music moves from the physical world of gigs and CDs to a virtual one, and along with that, whether the gatekeepers will see the fences come down.

Continue reading Max Hole: It’s Businesses as Usual

Why Has My Son Been Fingerprinted?

My six year-old son went on a trip to the park today with his holiday playgroup. There were various activities there, and among them it seems the Met were hosting some kind of “meet the Police” event. Part of this appears to have involved his fingerprint being taken.

What the hell is this about? He describes it as being something the policemen did “for fun” – but I’m not laughing.

I don’t know (and I need to ask the teachers who were at the event) whether the police kept a record of this print, what was said about it, or whether anyone other than my son was asked about it. The fact that the “certificate” he received (which I found in his bag when he came back) is glaringly unsigned adds insult to injury. There’s no contact details, no reason, nothing on the back of the paper… nothing.

Talk about sleepwalking into a surveillance society. The police randomly fingerprinting six year-olds? You couldn’t make this up!

For the First Time, Ever

The UK government has rejected calls to extend the length of copyright on sound recordings beyond 50 years.

This is the first time any government in the history of the world has refused to extend copyright, and it’s great news. 50 years is of course far, far too long, but at least the madness of extending it has been averted for now. To quote Doctorow in the Boing Boing today:

Extending copyright dooms nearly every author’s life’s work to obscurity and disappearance, in order to make a few more pennies for the tiny minority of millionaire artists like Cliff Richards (and billionaires like Paul McCartney).”

(and I’ll spell Sir Cliff’s name wrong because I can)

While Labour will have to do a lot more to make up for the Iraq war if they want me to actually vote for them, they get my approval on this outcome at least.

Going to Euro IA

I submitted an idea for a talk at this year’s Euro IA in Barcelona a few weeks ago (just met the deadline). The anonymous review process has now taken place and the results are out: they’d like me to do it as a poster.

While I would have preferred a talk to be able to do it justice, I am of course grateful to have been accepted. So, it’s off to Barcelona in September with my rolled-up poster under my arm. Let’s see if anyone understands what they hell I’m on about there.

Administrivia: Comment Posting

I’ve been told that comments aren’t working. I think this might be related to a relatively recent upgrade to WordPress that might have broken the theme I’m running (I’m hoping it’s not to do with the very low version of PHP the server’s running).

I’m going to see if I can fix this, but if you have been dying to tell me something, then jonathan at webtorque dot org will do you.

The Rights and Wrongs of Tag Clouds

I’m not obsessed with tag clouds, really I’m not, but I think they are the single most useful, yet criminally misunderstood and mis-applied UI device out there. I’ve written about tag clouds before, but this time I’m turning up the heat.

Controversy time: writing about “best practice” for tag clouds in terms of what fonts to use and other minutiae is the hallmark of the usability nerd. The other hallmark is forgetting – in this case utterly – to consider context. Whether or not a tag cloud is useful at all is 100% down to the context it’s in. Everything else is as near as dammit to irrelevant. The fact that few things in information architecture are as clear cut as this is particularly damning here. The one thing you have to understand in user experience design is context.
Continue reading The Rights and Wrongs of Tag Clouds

Paul Birch of Revolver Records

If you want to know what company directors think about how the government in this country works, look no further than this flabbergasting statement by Paul Birch of Revolver Records:

“I … think allowing indiscriminate criticism of the RIAA is inappropriate for a Government funded institution”

At least in terms of editorial integrity, if you are being funded by the government it should be case that it would be wholly appropriate – if not actually desirable – to criticise a private company!

Paul Birch is probably not alone in seeing the government as being simply a tool of corporate influence. This just shows how bad things have got – that people like him now need to make no secret of the fact that they expect governments to work exclusively for commercial interests. This is just staggering I think.

The User Experience of Photosynth

There was a flurry of interest in Microsoft’s Photosynth this week. I’m not sure why, since it’s been around for a while, and was one of the WPF/e showcases at Designertopia last year. The engine for Photosynth is Seadragon (acquired by Microsoft last year I think), explained here in more detail.

Photosynth (or at least it’s primary concept) comes alive when it’s pointed at Flickr. So I was at first mystified as to why the public demos of Photosynth all used photos taken by one person, but the video explains that they were not able to use a Flickr feed for legal reasons.

However, whether or not the photos used are heterogeneous, there is a problem I think. Spatially relating the images is of course very clever, but if we ignore this and look at what it’s like to use the interface, there is clearly a “keyhole” feeling to it. You are, at any one time, simply flicking though similar photos. Despite the occasional panorama that jumps out at you, it is far too easy to become disorientated (even with the homogeneous photos, so I assume even more with the heterogeneous ones). I thought at first that this may have been due to my unfamiliarity with the UI, but I’ve been playing with it quite a bit today, and I still feel as if I’m looking though the wrong end of a telescope while walking on a high-wire. Overall it mainly delivers the same experience as sifting though a stack of photos grouped by place.

There is, however, something of the Bladerunner here. The promise of discovering something hitherto unknown about a place (cf the example in the video using the poster of Notre Dame). It’s all quite intriguing, but I have my doubts about its actual utility.

I Was Mugged By Wolff Olins

I now realise that I hated the logo for the XXX Olympiad* because I was meant to hate it. Wolff Olins grabbed me by the throat, shoved me up against a wall and made me. At exactly the same time, they forced everyone else to take a stance on it too. Now the Sun has centre-spread hate pieces, 50,000 people sign petitions against it, and the London digerati pretend they loved it the minute they saw it. For god’s sake Wolff Olins – it’s only a logo! Why have you visited such pain upon us?

I have to admit I don’t really know if the logo is good or bad, or what a “good” logo would be anyway in this context. Good for what? Multichannel deployment? Recognition? Attracting the kids? The only thing we’re told is that it’s supposed to be doing the latter. I don’t know if anyone’s asked them, but I just wish it would all go away.

I’m with Ken Livingstone on sport: it bores bores me to tears. If people want to do it they can; I just resent been beaten over the head by it in this way.

* Ah, now I see why they aren’t using the official name this year!

And Design Shall Start With Observation

The project I’ve been working on for the last ten months is now winding down for me, so I’m getting involved with some new stuff. One of these couldn’t be more different from the rather rigorous approaches I’ve been taking since last year. Having attended a “workshop” for this project recently, I can’t help feeling I’ll be firing off shots in the war against intelligence.

But perhaps that’s the rule, and not the exception. Certainly, looking at the vast majority of sites right now and their seemingly total disregard for considered design, it seems to be the case. I found a rather typical example of this today when I bought some SkypeOut minutes. It wasn’t until I’d chosen Visa credit card and submitted the payment for processing that I was told the method of payment also determines how long it takes for the minutes to be allocated to my account. Not only that, but they only gave me times for debit cards (about 15mins) and bank transfers (about 3 days). No mention of credit cards or PayPal. Don’t worry, I’ve mailed them my thoughts on this.

All this makes me even more impressed with Nokia. This article about Jan Chipchase’s world of contextual research is interesting. I know that mobile devices are a bit of a different kettle of fish to web sites, but it’s good to know that at least one company (the only company?) out there recognises the value of such research. I like the last observation The question is how can we do our job as a large corporation and show people we interact with sufficient respect.”

Wise Guy, Eh?

Until yesterday, I’d not tried Any Questions Answered (AQA) – the old-school (as in not P2P) SMS-based answer service. For a mere £1, they will answer any question you have. I’d heard good things about them.

Their website allows you to ask one free question, so I did:

“Since 1950, how many people have been shot by the police in mainland Britain (excluding N Ireland) who were not later found to be innocent?”

Continue reading Wise Guy, Eh?

Submission to Euro IA 2007

Here’s an idea for a Euro IA submission I was thinking about (eh Barcelooona!) to fulfil one of my annual HR objectives: the one that says I need to ramp up my public profile to attain the status of European Experience Emperor.

Some prodding about seems to indicate that people do see this as a problem worth addressing, so I’ve finished filling out the submissions form today. Just got under the deadline too, which closes today. See what you think:

Continue reading Submission to Euro IA 2007

Persona Development What/How Thoughts

From time to time it’s fun to think things through using the “what/how analysis.” This can be summarised by the statement “One man’s ‘what?’ is another man’s ‘how?’” and it can be applied to lots of things in order to work out where you are in a set of processes and how, or whether, some things have a natural relationship or hierarchy to describe.

I’ve been trying to apply this technique to the process of persona development, because in particular this seems to me to cut the designer off at the point where they actually need to design the end product (the UI of the system in most cases). In short, I wanted to know whether performing a thought experiment like this would reveal whether modelling users necessarily supports the design of a better system for them or not.

Continue reading Persona Development What/How Thoughts

Maximising Profits, Minimising Innovation

When our grandchildren look back on the late and early 20th century – the dawn age of computing and the information revolution, they will see a company called Microsoft writ large across it. Just how large is difficult to grasp until you compare the profits that Microsoft makes from their nearly unchallenged monopoly.

Now compare these profits to the amount of innovation displayed by Microsoft in the marketplace. Who is this a problem for? I think it’s a problem for all of us because when I use technologies not produced by Microsoft I think of what might have been. What might computing and the information revolution be like today if we had had a competitive market in operating systems and software?

We will never know – but it’s interesting to wonder. Not least because Microsoft are now moving into areas like publishing.

Lull Before the Storm?

Cultural issues and technology are subtle things so I may be barking up the wrong tree, but on my recent trip to Japan, I met some teenagers who told me that they didn’t know much about computers (I’d told them that I design web sites. They were not impressed).

Instead, they use their phones for almost everything. Why didn’t they use computers? The answer seemed to be that they didn’t need to, so had no interest in them. Computers are big, phones are small. You need training for computers – but everyone can use a phone, they said. This latter statement appears to be true. I was struck by the consistency of the physical interfaces of most people’s phones in Japan, even across vendors the key layouts are pretty much the same, and I assume the virtual interfaces are therefore similar too. Why shouldn’t they be when content is king and the network operators business models are stable? Adults (sometimes even quite old ones) talked about their phones in the same way as quite young people in the West do, but not in terms of the features – they cared about the content.

I sometimes wonder if my skill set is too web-based, too classically client-server and desktop orientated. For all I know, a wave of mobile usage scenarios that I can barely guess at is going to break over my little world and obliterate it. How long can I chuckle over what I see as the risible user experience of contemporary mobile comms in the West and its utter failure – so far – to engage people?

Life with Linux

There are some posts that no real blog can be complete without, and that is some opinion about Linux. I’ve been using Ubuntu for over a year now and it occurs to me that I should write up something on it. Not that anyone’s asked, but then that’s what blogging is all about really isn’t it?

I switched from Windows to Ubuntu for no reason other than I wanted to see what it was like. I kept my Windows install in place on a dual-boot just in case, but mainly because I need access to Windows from time to time in order to work from home. Since installing Ubuntu, I’ve experimented with OpenSuSE and Kubuntu for a few months, but went back to Ubuntu when the Edgy release came out. I have a two year old Dell Dimension 5100, upgraded with an NVidia 7300GT video card.

Continue reading Life with Linux

UCD Crisis

There are too many methods of designing digital media. We currently have “agile” (hip, groovy) at one end and “waterfall” (a term of abuse) at the other. Each of our projects at LBi inhabits a space somewhere in between these two extremes at any one time – although because we’re an agency it’s mostly just different takes on waterfall. There have recently been some laudable attempts to be hip and groovy, although I’ve not yet had the pleasure of that myself.

From time to time my department (now close to fifty people I think) needs to vent a bit of excess energy (or hot air) in the form of periodic email discussions about industry tends, methods and related stuff. Some of this comes out on Stream, but mostly it’s by internal email. Today was a good example. Dan Saffer has written an article called Research Is a Method, Not a Methodology. This was duly discussed in fairly measured terms as Saffer makes some interesting points.

But then, I cracked.

Continue reading UCD Crisis

The Joost TV Business Model

I will not be buying shares in Joost any time soon. This is not because they don’t have a good product – having been on their beta testing swarm for the last few months, I think it’s quite nice really. The trouble is, according to the Guardian they will be getting their content from media owners based on a lie. The lie is as follows:

“… Joost boasts a secure, efficient, piracy-proof internet platform, and is guaranteeing copyright protection for content owners and creators.”

What a wonderful example of hubris: DRM will preserve the sanctity of copyright for the owners of films and videos and they can use the net as just another distribution channel. Phew! Thank god for Joost!

Unfortunately though, that won’t happen. It takes approximately 4 minutes for cracked versions of music from the iTunes store to appear on the P2P networks (according to Big Champagne). What makes Joost – or more accurately their investors – think that won’t happen to them?
I suppose the Graun can’t get it right every time, but let’s make this the subject of experiment. Give Joost the benefit of the doubt, put them up against Cory Doctorow‘s assertion:

“I believe that we live in an era where anything that can be expressed as bits will be. I believe that bits exist to be copied. Therefore, I believe that any business-model that depends on your bits not being copied is just dumb, and that lawmakers who try to prop these up are like governments that sink fortunes into protecting people who insist on living on the sides of active volcanoes.”

Joost are pitching their tent right now. Let’s see how long they last.

Julian Cope Rarity

I was going through some stuff at the weekend, and found a CD I bought in the Los Angeles from a shop in Melrose several years ago. Fans of Julian Cope will of course spot why it found its way into the bargain bin with a hole punched through the barcode.

If you’re not a fan, the clue is that the back cover art is supposed to say “That’ll be the deicide” (a typical Copeism, like “floored genius” and “Jehovakill” – the name of the album itself). I bet somebody was pretty furious at the time. I wonder how many they pressed before the plant was told to stop?