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Design

The FAQ as advice column

FAQ sections are derided by most content designers, myself included. But (as usual) it is not necessarily the format itself that’s the problem. Normally, the real problem is bad implementation.

This piece by Caroline Roberts makes a provocative case in favour of FAQs, by comparing them with advice columns.

The FAQ structure has held up for so long because it is a brilliant pattern. Think the Socratic method. Or the catechism. Or Usenet. Or “FAQs about FAQs.” Or — you guessed it — “Dear Prudence,” “Dear Sugar,” or any other popular advice column. Users will always have questions, and they will always want answers.

What makes FAQs troublesome is incorrect or lazy use. Lisa Wright has already shared what not to do, but perhaps the best way to start an FAQ is to choose each question with great care. For example, advice columnists spend plenty of time selecting what questions they will answer each week.

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Security design: Stop trying to fix the user

On the tendency of security approaches to rely on somehow educating users on this complex problem.

I’ve read dozens of studies about how to get people to pay attention to security warnings. We can tweak their wording, highlight them in red, and jiggle them on the screen, but nothing works because users know the warnings are invariably meaningless. They don’t see “the certificate has expired; are you sure you want to go to this webpage?” They see, “I’m an annoying message preventing you from reading a webpage. Click here to get rid of me.”…

We must stop trying to fix the user to achieve security. We’ll never get there, and research toward those goals just obscures the real problems. Usable security does not mean “getting people to do what we want.” It means creating security that works, given (or despite) what people do.

The same could be said for usability of any kind — but it seems especially vital in this case.

Via Khürt Williams.

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Somehow we missed it

More on the hard work designers need to do to ensure they have a positive impact on society.

To create a platform designed to connect millions of people and not imagine its potential misuses is wilful blindness. When we imagine and design and build tools and technologies and platforms and services it’s as important, perhaps more important to ask ‘how might this be misused’ as it is to ask ‘how might this be used’.

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6 mistakes that prevent UX teams from having boardroom influence

A good list of don’ts when you’re trying to set up an effective user experience function.

In particular, the pitfalls of “cargo cult usability” could do with being more widely understood. But I also enjoyed this point about being too insular.

Newly formed UX teams have a tendency to quickly turn inwards and focus heavily on their own practices, tools and methods: heads down, working in a vacuum, doing great work that doesn’t actually influence anything. As a result, we hear frustrated stakeholders say things like: “I don’t involve the UX team because they always seem too busy”. We’ve even heard UX team members themselves complain that, “We’re so busy and so mired in the day-to-day that we don’t have time to work alongside the development team.”

This reminds me of the (hilarious but true) story of the Staffordshire UK bus company. In 1976 it was reported that the buses on the Hanley to Bagnall route were not stopping to pick up passengers. People complained that buses would drive right by long lines of waiting passengers. The complaints prompted Councillor Arthur Cholerton to make transport history by stating that if the buses stopped to pick up passengers it would disrupt the timetable!

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The hunt for missing expectations

Jared Spool tells the story of a bookkeeper who became frustrated using Google Sheets because it didn’t have a double underline function.

To keep [usability] testing simple and under control, we often define the outcomes we want. For example, in testing Google Spreadsheet, we might have a profit and loss statement we’d want participants to make. To make it clear what we were expecting, we might show the final report we’d like them to make.

Since we never thought about the importance of double underlines, our sample final report wouldn’t have them. Our participant, wanting to do what we’ve asked of her, would unlikely add double underlines in. Our bias is reflected in the test results and we won’t uncover the missing expectation.

He suggests interview-based task design as a way of finding these missing expectations. Start a session with an interview to discover these expectations. Then construct a usability test task based on that.

I recently ran hybrid interviews and usability tests. That was for expediency. I didn’t base tasks on what I’d found in the interview. But it’s good to know I wasn’t completely barking up the wrong tree. I plan to use this approach in future.

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These classic BBC Two idents designed by Lambie-Nairn have now been retired — but not for the first time.

They were first replaced in 2001 by the Personality idents, which (despite the name) were actually rather insipid by comparison. Then came the downright dull Window on the World idents.

Lambie-Nairn’s idents returned in 2014. But they were originally developed in 1991. At the time, they were credited with transforming wider perceptions of the channel. It had been seen as dull and worthy, but became arty and exciting.

27 years is a hell of a long time for these idents to last, especially considering the subsequent shift to widescreen, then HD broadcasting. They have pretty much stood the test of time.

Later idents in the set became more complex and less focused. But I am especially fond of the very original idents from 1991, which were particularly pure and striking. The use of the Gill Sans 2, coloured with viridian, and backed with ethereal music, is such a simple idea, yet it was employed with remarkable versatility.

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The web I want

Why developers’ obsession with using complicated JavaScript to deliver some text to users needs to stop.

I made my first website about 20 years ago and it delivered as much content as most websites today. It was more accessible, ran faster and easier to develop then 90% of the stuff you’ll read on here.

20 years later I browse the Internet with a few tabs open and I have somehow downloaded many megabytes of data, my laptop is on fire and yet in terms of actual content delivery nothing has really changed.

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Smart voice assistants and smart homes — from the past

A really enjoyable piece on the history of smart home devices, and how Google Home and Alexa aren’t such new ideas. The video is well worth a watch, particularly because it demonstrates 1970s technology from Pico Electronics in Glenrothes! It’s amazing to see it work so well.

The point of Thomas Baekdal’s piece here is to demonstrate how trends aren’t new, but they emerge over a long period of time. It reminds me a bit of Gartner’s hype cycle, and a recent Nile webinar about how to employ foresight to understand emerging trends. Not to forget the Nielsen Norman Group research demonstrating that intelligent assistants still have horrible usability problems.

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Stop building for San Francisco

Realising that forcing websites to go HTTPS makes them more inaccessible for people with poorer connections was a penny dropping moment for me.

But this article takes the argument a bit broader.

First of all, you need to understand who your audience is, as people. If they’re genuinely wealthy people in a first world city, then you do you. But for people in rural areas, or countries with less of a solid internet infrastructure, failing to take these restrictions into account will limit your potential to grow. If you’re not building something that is accessible to your audience, you’re not building a solution for them at all.

You ≠ user.

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Trying to use the new F1 timing app

The new Formula 1 timing app is comically bad. Even on quite a large screen, it only shows 10 drivers — at a gigantic font size. Meanwhile, the live driver tracker is juddery and completely unusable.

But hey, I guess it uses Sean Bratches’ new fonts.

The old app wasn’t perfect, but at least it gave you all the information you needed to follow a session, and the driver tracker was usable.

It’s difficult to believe Liberty Media did any usability testing with any F1 fans before unleashing this style-over-substance atrocity.

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Dundee’s renaissance — a personal, alternative view

Brian Taylor reflects on Dundee’s resurgence.

But mostly this renaissance is driven by the collective will of the people.

It is marvellous to behold.

Together, they have decided to stop apologising for their city. They have decided to revisit her ancient history and, hopefully, pursue her proud future.

See also: The city with grand designs

A fantastic piece on the history of Dundee’s creative renaissance, which has been decades in the making.

Congratulations and good luck to everyone involved in the V&A Dundee, which opens this weekend. I will be visiting later this month.

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Does the universal symbol for disability need to be rethought?

Details of a project to create symbols representing people with invisible disablities.

Today, disability is represented by the International Symbol of Access (ISA), which was created by Danish design student Susanne Koefoed back in 1968. It’s a strong graphic of a person in a wheelchair that has had tremendous success in conditioning societies all over the world to respect and give preferential treatment and access to disabled people.

[Liam] Riddler agrees that the current symbol is extremely powerful and successful. But he points out that it really only works well for people with more visible disabilities, like those using wheelchairs or other visual aids. “In some instances, someone with an invisible disability might be mistaken for an able-bodied person, and as a result be subjected to abuse and unfair judgment as to why they’re using disabled-access facilities,” he explains via email. This, he says, can lead to unwarranted embarrassment, shame, and withdrawal from society.

It’s a noble idea, but surely creating multiple distinct symbols would only create further ambiguity. I’m not even sure people seeing the ISA necessarily see it as a person in a wheelchair, just as a save icon doesn’t mean you’re using a floppy disk.

More: Visability93 — McCann London.

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Using contractions could be making your writing inaccessible

We found that some of these users did not understand sentences that had negative contractions in them (negative contractions are words like ‘can’t’, ‘won’t’, ‘don’t’). They interpreted the sentence without inferring the ‘not’.

I have been in two minds about using contractions for a while. On the one hand, avoiding contractions does seem to reduce ambiguity. But at the same time it can make your writing seem stilted and overly-formal.

As always with writing style, there will be no true answer, and the right way forward will depend on the circumstances. But if in doubt, it is worth considering avoiding contractions.

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Designers are defining usability too narrowly

Another call on designers to think more widely when they are working on digital products. Khoi Vinh saw a Nielsen Norman Group report on best practice on websites aimed at children — but he felt the report focused too narrowly on usability.

I don’t dispute the findings at all. But it’s disturbing that the report focuses exclusively on usability recommendations, on the executional aspect of creating digital products for kids. There’s not a single line, much less a section, that cares to examine how design impacts the well-being of children…

We’re moving past the stage in the evolution of our craft when we can safely consider its practice to be neutral, to be without inherent virtue or without inherent vice. At some point, making it easier and easier to pull the handle on a slot machine reflects on the intentions of the designer of that experience.

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Thinking in triplicate

This is a very strong piece by Erika Hall, raising some seriously good points and questions about where user experience design is, and where it needs to go. It is well worth reading the full piece, and me pulling out a quote cannot do this justice. But here are some selections I particularly liked:

If good design entailed good business, women’s clothes would come in a wide range of sizes with usable pockets and our social media feeds would unfurl in reverse chronological order with an unremarkable absence of Nazis.

While most of the designers I know are far from objectivists, design as it is currently practiced is tantamount to Ayn Rand’s radical selfishness. We design for the experience of a single user at a time and expect that the collective experience, and the collective impact, will take care of itself.

It’s much more pleasant for designers to talk about empathy in one room and MBAs to talk about profits in the other and have marketers in the middle like an injectable filler.

This is exactly the sort of article we need to be seeing more of.

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Designing Google Maps for motorbikes

Some nice work from Google Maps on how they immersed themselves in their users’ world to understand how to improve Google Maps for motorbike users in places like Delhi and Jakarta.

The research team included engineers, UX designers, product managers, and marketing leads, all from different parts of the world. We met with two-wheeler drivers from Jaipur, Delhi, Bangalore, and Jakarta, in environments from bustling transportation hubs to kitchen tables in people’s homes. Our intention was to understand and relate to people in a way that felt authentic — we wanted to learn through immersion.

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Are we designers shamelessly good at self promotion?

An analysis of content about design — why people write it, how they look for it, and why it needs to be better.

Last year, we published and shared 4,302 articles and links with the community …

That’s a lot of links.

Most of them 5-minute Medium articles.

Not as thorough as we would like them to be.

Not deep at all.

Not as honest as our industry deserves.

This makes me wonder if my own approach — blogging daily with a link to and short remark about a 5 minute read — is wrong.

We definitely need to find more ways to write and think more deeply about design, and spend less time with superficial, self-promotional clickbait.

More on this from Khoi Vinh: Why designers don’t want to think when they read.

See also: Platforms, agile, trust, teams and werewolves — on why we need to see more stories about failure.

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Keeping digital teams happy versus keeping customers happy

Gerry McGovern tells the story of trying to persuade a digital team of what they needed to fix.

“It would be nice to fix these problems,” one person said. “But the team needs also to be able to do exciting things. We need to be able to innovate.”

Unfortunately, people at work often place too much emphasis on their own enjoyment. But our work only has meaning if it is providing value to someone.

Work shouldn’t be exciting. There’s a job to do.

See also:

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Proactive UX design: A big leap requiring baby steps

An excellent article from Jared Spool on the difference between proactive design and reactive design — and the importance of making your work more proactive.

Reactive UX design is just what it sounds like: reacting to a problem in the moment. “Oh, can you fix this?” “Help! Users are complaining this is too hard! What can we do?”

Without also having proactive UX design efforts, the design team is only fixing problems caused by decisions the product team has already made.

Interestingly, he also makes the point that it is easy for design teams to get sucked into doing reactive design, because it becomes comfortable for teams to do:

They like the wireframes and usability tests.

They believe this is what design work looks like. They believe design work always happens at the end of the process.

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Why Gov.uk content should be published in HTML and not PDF

How to give up PDFs and improve your higher education website’s user experience

The crusade against PDFs has been one of my constant hobby-horses over the years. It has also led to some of my toughest battles in my work.

Users hate PDFs, because it makes it harder to use content. But content owners love PDFs, because it makes it easier for them to create content. It is the ultimate in user-hostility. “Who cares about the users? PDFs make my job easier for me.”

So it was great to see two trusted sources reiterate the importance of getting rid of PDFs, within days of each other.

This has also reminded me of a small project I promised I would do, but never got around to — to publish my dissertation as an HTML webpage. The idea was to demonstrate how versatile HTML is, even for things like technical or academic writing. Maybe I’ll return to that this autumn.

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Evolving floorplans

The rooms and expected flow of people are given to a genetic algorithm which attempts to optimize the layout to minimize walking time, the use of hallways, etc. The creative goal is to approach floor plan design solely from the perspective of optimization and without regard for convention, constructability, etc.

I’m not sure this would work in real life. But it’s a fascinating idea, and the floorplans are certainly interesting to look at.

Via Boing Boing.

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Readability guidelines

I really like this idea of crowdsourcing, and making available to the community, a set of readability guidelines based on evidence.

I see many content designers spending time talking – arguing – about points of style when often accessibility and usability show what we should do.

What if there was one place where we, as a community, shared knowledge and created a style guide that was accessible, usable and – if we wanted – evidenced?

We could then spend time on the things that matter more to our organisations.

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The sound of silence: What we’re not saying about Siri and her AI gal pals

Why are digital assistants almost always given female-sounding voices?

While stakeholder preference might sound like a perfectly good reason at first, it hides an ugly reality. To make this clear, let me tell you a story about a talented young woman who I managed. She designed voice features for our clients’ prototypes. Although she created a voice that was meant to be genderless, the client kept referring to the voice in feminine terms. In other words, he heard what he expected to hear.

…BMW learned the hard way that female voices aren’t always the right route to take when German drivers of its 5 Series vehicles complained about “taking directions from a woman.” Yes, really.

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Platforms, agile, trust, teams and werewolves

Sometimes you go to conferences or meetups and they feel like a bit of a chore. You end up listening to a lot of PR spin from people who only want to share the best good news they’ve got. They’re usually under pressure to show their best side, and to sell their own success. We get why that happens, but it can be a dull experience if you’re in the audience.

This point from Giles Turnbull at Public Digital chimes with something that has been on my mind a bit recently.

People often talk about “failing fast” or being “unafraid to fail”. But those same people are often suspiciously unwilling to speak about their failures.

In a way that is understandable. But it would be good to hear more people genuinely opening up about the things that have gone wrong. Don’t just constantly trumpet the things that are going great (or the things that aren’t going great, but you say they are). If it’s true that you learn from failure, help others by sharing that — as well as your success stories.

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Designing the UI of Google Translate

I’m not too keen on user interface design showcases, because they usually boil down to: “look me make shiny thing”. But I really enjoyed this case study of how Google Translate redesigned their interface to make people more aware of some of the app’s most useful features.

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Annoying online ads cost business

Results from a study of users of Pandora has quantified the effect of shoving adverts in users’ faces. As part of the experiment, a section of users were served fewer ads than normal, and another section were served more ads than normal.

…after 1.5 years of being exposed to the experimental conditions, people did use the service more, the fewer ads they were served. At the end of the experiment:

  • The low-ad group listened for 1.7% more hours weekly than the control group.
  • The high-ad group listened for 2.8% fewer hours weekly than the control group.
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What is this thing called design?

I got out of bed and, in roughly an hour, hammered out a kind of primer on UX/UI design, which I’m publishing below. It’s a very unformed, rambly screed that I won’t pretend is at all definitive or even fully accurate. In fact it’s still basically a first draft; I literally typed it out in bullet point form, as shown below, a trick I used in order to absolve myself of the responsibility of writing a fully articulated essay.

Despite Khoi Vinh’s self-deprecation here, I think this is an excellent attempt at explaining what design is. For those who are frustrated about having to explain that design isn’t (just) about making things pretty, this blog post provides an excellent introduction to why — as well as helpfully explaining why this perception exists in the first place. Not bad for an hour’s work.

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Do British cities have grid systems? We used science to find out

A neat way of visualising how closely a city layout relates to a grid.

Includes the revelation that Milton Keynes isn’t actually as grid-like as you might think.

The designers decided that the grid concept should apply but should be a lazy grid following the flow of land, its valleys, its ebbs and flows. That would be nicer to look at, more economical and efficient to build, and would sit more beautifully as a landscape intervention.

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Four modes of seeking information and how to design for them

This is an old article, but some good brain food for those information architects out there. A good primer on some different ways people try to find content.

In my work on intranets and complex websites, I noticed a range of situations where people didn’t necessarily know what they needed to know. Additionally, when I opened my browser history to look for examples from recently-visited sites, I noticed that the majority of my own time was spent trying to find things that I had already discovered. These two modes didn’t fit into the concepts of known-item and exploratory information seeking. I call these “don’t know what you need to know” and re-finding.

I spent a while letting this rattle around my head, talking with IAs and designers, and realized that most only thought in terms of known-item searching. When discussing the other types of tasks, they’d ask with a horrified look, “So how do you design for that?”

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Thermostats, locks and lights: digital tools of domestic abuse

How smart devices are being used by perpetrators of domestic abuse.

We are becoming increasingly aware of some of the darker side of technology. Perhaps this is a challenge to designers and technologists — to ensure that their products can’t be used in this sort of way.

The people who called into the help hotlines and domestic violence shelters said they felt as if they were going crazy.

One woman had turned on her air-conditioner, but said it then switched off without her touching it. Another said the code numbers of the digital lock at her front door changed every day and she could not figure out why. Still another told an abuse help line that she kept hearing the doorbell ring, but no one was there.

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Could architecture and design do anything to alleviate walmartism?

How architecture is used to place poorer people in harsher environments.

Texture is a class thing. The more money you have, the more texture you get. The reverse is true of lighting and sound: the more money you have, the less of both of those you get.

These are not universal rules, but a return from a month spent in Europe to the United States, which is always much harsher in its economic realities than the countries over there, made it evident to me how prevalent the reality of texture discrimination is. Let’s call it walmartism: the transformation of the spaces used by those with the least means into boxes devoid of texture.

A more extreme example of a similar phenomenon is where a tower block such as Grenfell is re-clad to make it more pleasant for the rich people outside the building to look at, but more dangerous for the poor people living inside it.

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You’re so intelligent

This is an 11 year old article that has just recently come to my attention, but it resonates today. It describes how graphic designers have protested about being seen as the ones that make it pretty; how they have sought to be given more respect, as if being tickled in the tummy.

I found myself at a design conference listening to still another demand that clients give us designers that coveted place at that legendary table where all the big decisions are made. Sitting next to me was one of my favorite clients, someone I treasure for her levelheadedness and good humor. “I’ve spent hours at that table,” she whispered to me. “It’s not that great, you know.”

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