Archive:
Design

Will this three-storey slice of British brutalism be the hit of the Venice Biennale?

On the V&A’s section of Robin Hood Gardens, to be exhibited at the Venice Biennale.

The condition of the structure has made it even harder for the demolition team, who are used to turning up with the wrecking ball and mechanical munching jaws, but were suddenly charged with dismantling part of the building piece by precious piece, with some components over three metres long and weighing more than two tonnes.

“The demolition crew started to see the design in a whole new light,” says V&A curator Olivia Horsfall Turner. “Having thought this was just another concrete monstrosity they were tearing down, their outlook was really transformed.”

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Design Notes podcast, episode 9

During this Google Design podcast interview with Cameron Koczon, I was particularly struck by the section on making design truly meaningful.

You thought that, that was a cool photo to show. You wanted to share the photo, but you didn’t really want to share the photo. You wanted to collect little hearts. That says something about the tool. It’s not a photo sharing tool, it’s a heart collecting tool, which is a little casino that you put in your pocket and you carry it around. It’s no good.

When I stopped posting directly social media last year, I had to stop using Instagram altogether because there is no way to post to it without using Instagram. I thought this would be a problem. Because I liked collecting those little hearts. And I did miss it at first. But now I don’t miss it at all, and I recognise that Instagram was ultimately unfulfilling.

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There are better ways to get around town

A New York Times piece on how New York could take inspiration for European cities to make its streets safer. But these aren’t just lessons for New York. There are lessons for everyone.

Some old-school traffic engineers in America will tell you that many of the Dutch ideas are unsafe. What they mean is that they make streets unsafe for fast driving. In 2016, the Netherlands had 33 traffic deaths for every million people. America had 118 traffic deaths per million.

As cities become ever-more crowded, and with an autonomous revolution about to kick off, now is the time to radically rethink how our streets are designed. The days of cars taking priority have to end, and to encourage active travel — cycling and walking. It will make us all feel better and be safer.

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The subtle sexism of your open plan office

When the architect responsible for an open plan office that made women feel watched compared it to being on a nudist beach, he undermined himself.

“I think it’s like going to a nudist beach. You know, first you’re a little bit worried that everyone’s looking at you, but then you think, hang on, everybody else is naked, no one’s looking at each other,” he told the researchers. “I think that’s what’ll happen, they’ll get on with it.”

The only problem is that sociological research of nudist beaches has shown that people do continue to watch each other–“men in particular, often in groups, look obsessively at women,” the researchers write. This kind of all-glass, no-privacy environment leads to a subtle kind of sexism, where women are always being watched and thus judged on their appearances, causing anxiety for many employees.

See also: What makes the perfect office?

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Ethics can’t be a side hustle

Why ethical design starts with you.

How is ethics in design (or tech) even debatable? Can you imagine any other industry debating whether they needed to consider ethics? Can you imagine doctors debating whether ethics are important? Actually, they do. They debate ethics every day. But they’re far beyond debating whether they’re important, and on to deliberating the more interesting fine points. Where, honestly, is where we need to be if we’re writing software for self-driving cars and smart vibrators.

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Design navigation for clarity and fidelity

There is nothing worse than a vague, meaningless link. Well, there is. It’s a link that promises much more than it can deliver. I call that sort of link a dirty magnet.

Left out of Gerry McGovern’s list of dirty magnets is my personal favourite — Further information.

Think about it. Everything on a website is further information (at least, it should be). There is nothing more useless or uninformative than a page called Further information.

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Bill Grundy Looks at Aylesbury (1972)

I love pretty much everything about this.

Bill Grundy is notorious now for goading the Sex Pistols into swearing on prime time ITV. But before that, he found himself in Aylesbury for unclear reasons. He was none too impressed with its recent brutalist redevelopment, and his curmudgeonly commentary is highly entertaining.

His villain is Fred Pooley, Aylesbury’s planner, the man who invented the imaginary Buckinghamshire monorail town in the sixties, which actually became the motorway town of Milton Keynes in the 70s. Pooley was brilliantly talented. Grundy dismisses him as ‘smug’ – not that we ever get to find out, as he makes no effort to interview him. And so, rather it’s Bill Grundy who comes across as smug instead, drinking beer from a tankard and opining about fibreglass ducks and the ills of modern life, while undoubtedly being a major beneficiary of the improved communications and technology of the day in his work as a TV presenter.

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Dear developer, the web isn’t about you

A call to stop the madness and focus on making the web a better platform for people, and not the technologist’s playground it’s becoming. It’s lengthy, but well worth it.

There is so much good stuff here, but I particularly enjoyed this section on the obsession with JavaScript.

Instead of HTML being generated on, and delivered from, the server, a JS bundle is sent to the client, which is then decompressed and initialised and then requests data, which is then sent from the server (or another server, as now everything is a service) as JSON, where it is then converted on the fly into HTML.

Permit an old lady to rant here…

Because to me, this is rather akin to building a Boeing 747 to commute to work.

🙌

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Design flaws in electronic health records can harm patients, study finds

We know that poor usability can lead to disastrous consequences. Think to the recent case of the accidental missile alert in Hawaii.

This is a more rigorous, academic investigation into the negative consequences of poor usability in electronic health records. The study even suggests that bad usability may have caused deaths.

Some 557 (0.03 percent) reports had “language explicitly suggesting EHR usability contributed to possible patient harm,” and among those, 80 caused temporary harm, seven may have caused permanent harm and two may have been fatal.

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Crying over spilt milk: An empathy map example

Example empathy map

I have recently been involved in a project with the University of Edinburgh UX Service to conduct user research for the API Service.

In one of the workshops we ran, we wanted participants to work with empathy maps to give us an insight into their experiences.

This post on the University Website Programme blog outlines how I introduced workshop participants to the concept of empathy maps, with an example around my own experience of buying milk.

Buying milk is a simple task that most of us carry out on a regular basis. But this example showed how using an empathy map can reveal a surprising amount of detail about the behaviours and feelings someone goes through when completing a task.

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Presenting findings of our user research for the API Service

User experience research for the University of Edinburgh’s API Service

I have been leading some user research for a project at the University of Edinburgh to develop API Service. This post on the University Website Programme blog outlines the steps we went through in the first phase of the research. This included interviewing developers, running workshops, and developing personas and journey maps.

This has been a successful and rewarding project. It has been particularly interesting for me to do some UX work that wasn’t necessarily to do with a website. There will be a couple more blog posts about it to come.

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Dundee’s new dawn: From invisible town to Scotland’s coolest city

In September, Scotland’s first dedicated design museum arrives in the shape of the V&A Dundee. For the city’s inhabitants, there’s a cautious optimism in the air.

A good, balanced piece about Dundee. Cautious optimism is a great way to describe the atmosphere of Dundee.

When I moved to Dundee in 2010, people told me it was up and coming. The waterfront area has been in a constant state of flux, as 40-year-old buildings make way for a new masterplan. The roadworks and upheaval are dealt with through gritted teeth, in recognition that this is all for the greater good in the long term.

Dundee is still up and coming in 2018. The question is: when will it actually come up?

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What makes the perfect office?

Lessons for architects, designers and managers. What research has shown about office design and productivity.

It turns out that the most productive spaces aren’t the ones that are tasteful, “look professional” or have been designed by a starchitect. They are spaces that empowered people to make the space their own.

… [T George] Harris scoured the academic literature for any evidence that good design helped people to get things done, or to be happier in the office. He couldn’t find it. “People suddenly put into “good design” did not seem to wake up and love it,” he wrote. What people love, instead, is the ability to control the space in which they work – even if they end up filling the space with kitsch, or dog photos, or even – shudder – garden gnomes.

Trained designers tend to have a strong idea of what good taste is. But that often flies in the face of what most people actually want.

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Twitter gets message order wrong

Philip Hunt on how bad Twitter’s user interface has become.

When Twitter started out, it was such a simple concept. Just straightforward status updates; no real interaction. (When I joined Twitter, @ replies didn’t even exist yet.)

Over time it has added more and more features — replies, retweets, quote retweets, threads. Seemingly it has not been thought through properly.

If you spend a lot of time on Twitter, you catch onto these user interface quirks pretty quickly. But new users must find it so intimidating. So it is little wonder Twitter struggles to attract and retain new users.

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The secret cost of research

A belter of an article on why it is difficult to persuade people to undertake user research:

Research is simply asking questions about how the world works. And asking questions about how the world works threatens established authority.

I especially love the section “Bad research is good theatre”:

Focus groups look like how people imagine research looks. In a special room, controlled. But just because you have a 2-way mirror doesn’t make it anything more than a tea party. Actual ethnographic research happens where the people you’re studying do the thing you want to learn about. It’s often unsatisfyingly messy and low tech.

Fake research makes people money, and it makes people in charge feel good, but it’s useless and potentially dangerous to a design project.

So how do you get decision-makers to see the light? Understand them as people, like a good UXer should!

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Unsexy fundamentals focus: User experiences that print money

An extraordinary example of someone trying to give a publisher a lot of money — and the publisher making that experience as difficult as possible.

I’ve said before that I don’t have much sympathy for most publishers who are struggling. This is one example of exactly why many of their struggles are largely their own fault.

It beggars belief that a publisher should make it so hard to buy their product online. Many of them have a long hill to climb.

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The tools matter and the tools don’t matter

It is easy to sneer at a question about what brand of pen to use, or whether you should use a pencil or a typewriter.

But in this piece, Austin Kleon argues that different tools can help you “get you to a certain way of working in which you can get your conscious, mechanical mind out of the way” to enable creativity.

…handwriting is great for coming up with ideas, for note-taking and big picture thinking…

Typing, on the other hand, is great for producing writing for other people… There’s a thing called “transcription fluency,” which boils down to: “when your fingers can’t move as fast as your thoughts, your ideas suffer.”

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1/1 — Brian Eno

Ambient 1 / Music for Airports is 40 years old this month.

1/1 artwork

It is spurious to claim that Brian Eno invented ambient music. Erik Satie’s furniture music deserves mention. Eno himself recognised the role of Muzak.

Music for Airports is not even Eno’s first ambient album, despite its Ambient 1 moniker. But it certainly is the most important.

Music for Airports is both experimental and timeless. Bold yet gentle. You can consciously listen to it. But it may also affect your mood without you consciously being aware of it. Or in the words of Eno, “it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”

It was a genuinely new idea. It introduced the notion of designing music for a specific purpose, yet was still packaged as a pop album. A stunning concept.

But how would we feel if music like this was played in an airport? Would it be a calming influence? Or would it grate like Muzak?

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Liminal thinking

A powerful explanation of how beliefs are formed, and what little resemblance they have to reality.

Your beliefs form the fundamental model that you use to navigate the world, to think about things, to decide what to do and what to avoid, like a map. We form a lot of these beliefs by middle childhood.

And since you’re the one who built the map, it’s natural to believe that it corresponds to the territory that you are navigating. After all, most of the time, your map gets you where you want to go. So much so that when the map doesn’t get you where you want to go, the first thing you question is not the map but reality.

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Of software designers and broken combs

An interesting way of thinking about skills development that I hadn’t heard of before. Conventional wisdom suggests aiming for a T shaped distribution of skills — (the horizontal bar representing shallow skills across many disciplines; the vertical bar representing deep understanding of one discipline).

The broken comb model suggests developing a moderately deep understanding across many disciplines.

With certain exceptions, organizations with many T-shaped people may have difficulty keeping all of those T-shaped people busy. If the base of my T is icon design, but there are no icons available to design, I am either stuck twiddling my thumbs, or doing something I’m much less good at.

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Design’s lost generation

As usual with Mike Monteiro, I don’t agree with everything he says (or the way he says it). But this is a seriously thought-provoking article on the failure of a generation of designers.

I am part of design’s last generation. I’ve fucked up. We all have. None of us did enough. Maybe the tide was too strong, or maybe we were too weak. But as I look behind me I see the hope of a new generation. They’re asking better questions, at a younger age, than we ever did. And I truly hope they do better than us because the stakes have never been higher.

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The 9 rules of design research

One of the hardest things about design or user research is convincing people that it actually needs to take place. That is especially maddening when working for an research organisation.

(Researchers themselves are sometimes the most reluctant to undertake user research before spending serious amounts of money on ineffective websites.)

So this snippet, among a series of useful rules of thumb, made me cheer. 🙌

If you’ve ever worked with a leader who was resistant to doing qualitative research as part of a million dollar project, ask yourself whether they would skip doing their own research before buying a $50,000 car.

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Design, system

Ethan Marcotte on the “delicate act” of working with a design system. It’s the same challenge facing anyone working with a hub and spoke structure.

How do you balance a drive to standardise designs (or business processes, or policies, or whatever), against the often legitimate requirement to meet unique local needs?

It’s easy for an organization to look at that one-off pattern as a problem of compliance, of not following the established rules. And in many cases, that might be true! But it’s also worth recognizing when a variation’s teaching you a lesson: namely, that your design system isn’t meeting the needs of the people who’re using it.

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If Google wanted to get found in Google

If you ever have to say you’re simple, you’re not. Because if you were truly simple then you wouldn’t have to waste time telling people you are. You’d just be simple. Only those with complexity syndrome feel the need to explain that they are simple. The more you have to write about how to use your product or service, the more you have failed as a designer.

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Subverted design

As designers have gradually become more senior (or perhaps more experienced), their role in organisations has evolved. But it’s not necessarily a good thing.

Products will always be made through compromise. But in a world where Designers are focused on balancing business needs against user needs, while other stakeholders are focused exclusively on business needs, these compromises will almost always favor the business.

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What is design ethnography?

A useful overview of how you can apply principles from ethnography when designing. You are unlikely to be able to use a fully ethnographic approach. But that doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate elements of it.

Our view is that, if we liken traditional ethnography to a prize heavyweight boxer, then design ethnography is more akin to a street fighter. It doesn’t follow all of the rules but it gets the job done.

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People and tooling

On the increasingly complex nature of design and development.

The way we build for the web right now feels problematic in so many ways. Instead of welcoming everyone from our teams with their various skills, we create layers of complexity that shut many out.

I sense this is deliberate, albeit in a subtly unconscious way. There is a culture among some in technology that seeks to belittle and exclude those who find complicated things intimidating. So development has grown in complexity over time, probably needlessly so.

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Then and now: The Bauhaus and 21st century design

Don Norman assesses the Bauhaus movement, and its relevance to design today. He notes that despite its widespread cultural influence, it failed to produce a single object that significantly improved people’s lives.

Consider the “Curriculum Wheel”… developed by Walter Gropius in 1922… It contains three years of study, starting with form and materials, moving to advanced topics in materials, composition, and construction. Never a mention of people. Never a mention of usage. It was all about form.

Elements of this remind me of contemporary debates around flat design and other superficial user interface decisions. This form or that form isn’t right or wrong, unless you know you are meeting people’s needs.

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