Category Archives: Weak Filler

Rather powdery grouting.

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

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.

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.

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

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

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

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?

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.

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

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

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

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.

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.


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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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?

Blimey – It Worked!

I took out one of those incredibly dodgy-looking “100% cashback” mobile phone deals last year. Much to my surprise – it seems to have worked. £35 a month for a 12-month T-Mobile contract with 200 free any time/any network minutes per month. The handset was free too – a K700i.
I didn’t go over my 200 minute limit, but did spend some money on texts. I think I ended up spending maybe £20 over the year (a couple of mistaken calls to 0800 numbers I think too). I also spent £12 on special delivery postage costs for the cashback claims. The deal was from The Mobile Outlet, who tried to refuse my initial claim after six months on the grounds that I’d not complied with their contract terms. This seems to have been a mix-up though, and a couple of weeks later I get a cheque for £192. Last week, I got the other one for the remaining six.
Now I’m doing it again, this time with Phones 2U on a K750i handset with Vodafone (500 minutes, 200 texts).
As long as these deals are around, I’m not going to use PAYG again and that’s for sure! I wonder how much they make out me?

AKQA In Da Second Life House

Those groovy people at AKQA are so groovy they are even in Second Life. Here’s a picture of me in their lounge, marvelling at the slideshow on the wall. And here’s one of me leaving a groovy comment.

Although quite deserted (it’s a Saturday night after all – they’ll be at home looking at their KPIs), it’s all very groovy, as I’ve said.

I’d better stop now because for all I know we’ll be merging with them in a few months time and I’ll have to be nice to them all…

Worthy Petitions

10 Downing Street, in conjunction with mySociety, have recently launched an on-line petition system where citizens can collect signatures for issues with which to petition the government.

If you haven’t already, I strongly encourage you to lend your support to petition set up by Suw Charman of the Open Rights Group:

“Thousands of people own MP3 players which they have filled with copies of CDs that they have legally purchased, yet making this copy is itself illegal. Copyright law is out of step with this common behaviour which is seen by the majority as morally and ethically acceptable. The law should be changed to reflect new, fair uses of copyrighted materials.”

You may also wish to support this cause as well.

‘It’s just all kinds of filth’

He’s gone for the irony hat trick…!

Boingboing reports on this article is about a man who has asked his daughter’s school to take Fahrenheit 451 off the curriculum because of its use of “bad language” and (for extra irony points) smoking, amongst other things. The incident is wonderful not least for the fact that he chose to lodge the complaint last week – which just happend to be the American Library’s Banned Books Week as well!

I checked to see whether Fahrenheit 451 had itself been a banned book in the past, but sadly not. Perhaps if he belonged to a religious or ethnic minority he could have claimed the Guinness Book entry for “most ironic attempt at censorship” – a record currently held by Jackson County, Florida for their attempt in 1981 to ban George Orwell’s 1984 due to it being “pro-communist.”

On second thoughts, that’s not actually ironic so much as plain stupid.

Holiday Shorts & Godlike Pyjamas

We’ve been on holiday in Scotland for a bit of Edinburgh Festival, visiting relatives and – amazingly – very good weather while it threw it down in London.

I’ve had a cold, but am now better, and am thinking seriously about buying some Armor of God Pyjamas – not that the two are connected. Or are they? As an aside, there can’t be many ecommerce sites “salvation” as a link on the main navigation, and while greed is sin there seems to be nothing wrong with attempting to spamdex your title tags.

Question 1: A Search Engine Is…?

I’ve been attending a few of the many think-ins that the publishing industry, pressure groups and various other institutions have been having recently around the subject of The Internet and What Is Means For Us.

Sadly, these have been largely unnoteworthy, although my attendance at the IPPR event last night “The Long Tail: Opportunities in a New Marketplace?” threw up an example of what I hope is not a very wide misconception about Google and search engines in general.

Continue reading Question 1: A Search Engine Is…?

‘Blogging “Pointless” Shocker

I don’t think I’ve ranted here about what a pointless occupation ‘blogging is, nor why all ‘bloggers should be shot through the back of the head with a small bore rifle.

And so it is with rich irony and customary pointlessness, on a blog that nobody reads (and I have the Google Analytics stats to prove it!), that I link to the indefatigable Richard Lockwood’s, er, ‘blog!

And thanks for the abbreviating apostrophe, if that’s what it is.

Vanity Tracking

Somebody must be reading this blog. At least, I’ve now had postings and email on subjects as diverse as copyright, software and public speaking. I’ve even had to remove a posting after somebody complained! Surely it can’t get much better than that.

I’m also particularly impressed that not one but two staggeringly famous multi-millionaire media and marketing liminaries have swung in from the ether in the last few months to ask my opinion on things (OK that’s not exactly true, but I’ve been flattered that I caught their attention). Hooray for the Internet! It does wonders for the ego.

But how much traffic am I actually getting? The fact that after well over a year on line, Webtorque has yet to receive its first Adsense cheque leads me to suspect not much. So it’s time to deploy Google Analytics I think. In fact, why didn’t I think of that in the first place?

Impulse Blog!

It’s the new football! It’s the new rock and roll! It’s impulse blogging!

Impulse blogging (my italics, to increase the hype) is the new craze coming straight out of North Finchley’s finest blog. Like all great ideas, it starts off all complicated and difficult to grasp, then suddenly reveals itself to be so simple that even a five-year-old could blah blah blah, and probably has. Here’s how impulse blogging works:

I sit down at my computer with an intention to blog about something, but without any idea of what it’s actually going to be about. I fire up my trusty blog form, and purposefully ignore all the metadata fields that appear below the title (I don’t yet know what it’s going to be about, see). As the i-beam winks invitingly at row 0 col 0, I then go into a sort of new-media induced trance where the experience of the net wafts through my mind in a William Gibson-esque sort of way until something bumps into conciousness. In fact it’s a lot like being a Guild Navigator I suspect: looking for paths into and though the blogosphere, only in my case it’s fuelled by a combination of coffee and lack of proper sleep.

So what gems has this technique produced? Well, er, none so far, but I’m sure you’ll know when it does.

Getting Users to Complain

As luck would have it, my Internet connection went down yesterday. That’s not exactly a disaster because the only thing I could muster for World Usability Day (yesterday) was this:

This is the password input screen for my online SIPP account. Part of me is glad it looks cheap, because it confirms that I’m not paying them to pay someone like me to design a fancy system. That said, I thought it was sufficiently novel example of a usecrime in progress to warrant a blog note.

I get my password wrong, and after the customary blurb, it then says:

To hide these error messages, click on the Hide Errors button.

This is an interesting innovation in forms design. Firstly, WHY would you want to hide the error messages (“these errors”)? If I click on the button to hide them, and get my password wrong again, does it mean that I won’t see any more errors? In fact, clicking the button does exactly what it says. It makes the error message (and the button) go away and nothing else is affected. I can then put my password in again as if nothing had happened. But what possible value is there is being able to hide the message first?

This goes to the heart of the whole “value in IA” debate. The user can’t do anything else on this screen apart from close the window or get the password wrong again, neither of which is catastrophic. So who cares about some weird thing about dismissing error messages?

The answer of course is that non-sensical, non-standard behaviour, no matter how easy it is for the user to recover afterwards, has a cumulatively negative effect. It sows the seeds of doubt: if they get this wrong, what else is going wrong that I *can’t* see? It frustrates: maybe it’s me getting it wrong, maybe it’s them, how do I know if this is significant? The cumulative effect of all this mental noise corrodes the experience of using the system (which in this case is depressingly clunky after you log in as well).

I wonder if the directors or shareholders of this company have ever used this system? If they have, they probably shrugged off the “hide error message” button as just some web flotsam. A bit like the “mono” button on an amplifier perhaps, or the “scroll lock” key on their keyboard. In any case, the problem is for users to recognise bad usability for what it is. Being confused by an interface, or worried about what to do with one, should be worth complaining about.

So it occurs to me that the organisers of World Usability Day have missed a trick. What we need is a campaign aimed at encouraging users to complain about bad usability. Make people confident enough to recognise it as being something they need to complain about – like potholes in the road, bad smells, or noisy neighbours.

The Twenty-Five Million Dollar Man

Having spent three days writing one of the most rigorous and boring five-page documents of my life this week (a “Summary of Business Rules”), I decided that nobody was going to read the thing unless I could promise it to contain hidden Jane Austen references. This, I thought, would endear me to my classically-minded colleagues while turning them on to the finest points of whether hiding a shared Page transfers medico-legal responsibility to the Pathway. So I spent another few hours working in references to Sense and Sensibility while pretending to work on wireframes.

Flush with having achieved my aim, but exhausted at all the covert effort, I sent out a triumphant email to the said colleagues before leaving my desk and walking into the night – only to realise I’d spelt the name of the most famous female English novelist “Jane Austin.”

So perhaps I meant a sister of Steve, the Six Million Dollar Man.

If I had, then it’s interesting to note that when the first episode of that TV series was broadcast in 1973, $6,000,000 was worth the following in 2003:

$24,865,988.70 using the Consumer Price Index
$20,026,833.11 using the GDP deflator
$24,171,043.39 using the unskilled wage
$34,768,273.33 using the GDP per capita
$47,607,724.02 using the relative share of GDP


This I think gives a better idea of the impact of the title at the time, and lends more weight my earlier point about the meaning of words.

“In spite of the answer, therefore, she ordered the carriage, and drove to Mrs Bates’s, in the hope that Jane would be induced to join her — but it would not do; — Miss Bates came to the carriage door, all gratitude, and agreeing with her most earnestly in thinking an airing might be of the greatest service — and every thing that message could do was tried — but all in vain.

Life is What Happens…

There is a (possibly apocriphal – I’ve not checked it) John Lennon quotation: “Life is what happens when you’re making plans for other things” which is rather apt for me recently. For instance, I noticed that I’ve been blogging for more than a year now and that the anniversary (July 11th) completely passed me by. Not that this is in itself a wonderfully interesting event, but I did imagine I would be marking the date with a fantastic post on world peace, the copyfight, or at least something on site maps. But no. Instead I’m worrying about my pension.

Pensions are scary things, to be sure, and particularly so if you think you might not have enough to see you through your old age. But then Axel had his 5th birthday last week and I’ve not written his birthday saga yet… An old friend from school days got in touch and I forgot to get back to him, and countless other little events that I should have been paying more attention to.

So to commemorate the event of me not writing anything of even the remotest interest, I have created a new meta data type for this blog called “Weak Filler,” evoking as it does some rather badly-mixed powdery grouting, or lame content. Enjoy.