Tag Archives: rants

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.

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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

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.
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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

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.
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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.

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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.
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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.
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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

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.
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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

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!

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.

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.

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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?

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.
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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.

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 Power.com 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.

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.