Archive:
Technology

Screenshot of the text only version of the NPR website

The hurricane web

This post really underlines how media companies have taken the web in totally the wrong direction.

It shows how media organisations like CNN and NPR brought out lightweight “text only” versions of their websites to help hurricane-stricken areas with low bandwidth.

…in some aspects, they are actually better than the original.

Most importantly, it’s user friendly. People get what they came for (the news) and are able to accomplish their tasks.

It reminds me of the GDPR compliant version of the USA Today website, which many noted was actually a far better experience than the standard version that was filled with trackers and ads.

Think how brilliant the web could be again, if people removed all the crap from their pages and focused on what users actually need.

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‘People you may know:’ A controversial Facebook feature’s 10-year history

I had forgotten (or never realised) that ‘people you may know’ was originally a LinkedIn feature before Facebook poached it. This article covers how the shady world of shadow profiles enabled Facebook to turn this cute idea into something spooky.

If Facebook sees an email address or a phone number for you in someone else’s address book, it will attach it to your account as “shadow” contact information that you can’t see or access.

That means Facebook knows your work email address, even if you never provided it to Facebook, and can recommend you friend people you’ve corresponded with from that address. It means when you sign up for Facebook for the very first time, it knows right away “who all your friends are.” And it means that exchanging phone numbers with someone, say at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, will result in your not being anonymous for long.

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"Prime and punishment"

Dirty dealing in the $175 billion Amazon Marketplace

A fascinating article about the various dirty tricks and scams that independent retailers are playing on each other on Amazon Marketplace.

For sellers, Amazon is a quasi-state. They rely on its infrastructure — its warehouses, shipping network, financial systems, and portal to millions of customers — and pay taxes in the form of fees. They also live in terror of its rules, which often change and are harshly enforced…

Sellers are more worried about a case being opened on Amazon than in actual court…

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Maze

Is tech too easy to use?

Making the case that, sometimes, friction in design is a good thing.

Often, invoking the concept of friction is a useful way to obscure some larger, less savory goal. For Facebook, “frictionless sharing” was a thinly veiled cover for the company’s true goal of getting users to post more often, and increasing the amount of data available for ad targeting. For YouTube, auto-playing videos have sharply increased view time, thereby increasing the platform’s profitability. And for Amazon, tools like one-click ordering have created a stunningly efficient machine for commerce and consumption.

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Why makers write

This is a bit of a sales pitch, but it is a good piece on the importance of writing regularly.

Deep understanding is necessary for makers. Understanding develops the perspective and conviction needed for bringing products to market. This is why blog-first startups are viable. Writing forces a maker to deeply understand the value they intend to bring into the world.

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Apple's new map

Apple’s new map

I always enjoy Justin O’Beirne’s analysis of how Google Maps and Apple Maps are evolving.

In this post, Justin considers an Apple Maps update that appears to have an insane level of detail. But the further you read, the worse it becomes. The new map has taken Apple four years to make, and covers just 3.1% of the US (an area around — you guessed it — San Francisco).

I risk spoiling the article here. But essentially, a large number of unusual errors and inconsistencies in the map point to much of the new data being manually created.

It all makes me wonder what the point is of having this sort of detail. A picture of a baseball field that the map doesn’t recognise as a baseball field strikes me as pointless. It’s little more than a heavily compressed, coarse vector graphic version of a satellite map. It tells you nothing that the satellite photo couldn’t.

In other words, this superficially impressive update is just that — superficial. Well, I guess it’s Apple after all…

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Keeping it weird

Or, more accurately, stopping it being weird. This refers to the problem that most psychology research is conducted on people that are western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.

Tim Kadlec considers the implication this has on our understanding of how people use the web.

We’ve known for a while that the worldwide web was becoming increasingly that: worldwide. As we try to reach people in different parts of the globe with very different daily realities, we have to be willing to rethink our assumptions. We have to be willing to revisit our research and findings with fresh eyes so that we can see what holds true, what doesn’t, and where.

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Oblique Strategy card: "Tidy up"; Blockbox card: "Write it on a train."

I’ve been writing an article that I’ve been thinking about for well over a year. Upon writing it, it’s turned out to be surprisingly short. So I turned to my two favourite block-busters — and they both told me to do things I was thinking about doing anyway.

Oblique Strategies told me to tidy up.

Blockbox said write it on a train.

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A farewell from BadgerGP.com

After a decade (yes, a decade!) of BadgerGP.com we’re closing down after the 2018 season.

One of the first — and best — Formula 1 blogs is closing its doors.

In 2010, I was honoured to be asked if I would like to contribute an article to BadgerGP. The outcome was, The Vettel-Webber backlash: Are Red Bull losing their Fizz?

As noted by the F1 Broadcasting Blog on Twitter, it’s a shame to see another independent motorsport website close.

Thanks to Adam Le Feuvre, and everyone involved with F1 Badger and BadgerGP over the years.

See also: The survival of independent motorsport websites

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It’s a dream come true — I’ve finally won HQ Trivia.

…But it was a true team effort thanks to the help of Rebecca, Alex, Louise and Jamie. The drinks are on me… Which leaves me about a tenner out of pocket.

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The BBC Domesday Project

A fascinating long article on the BBC Domesday Project from 1986. This huge project celebrated the 900th anniversary of the Domesday book, with an ambitious modern-day take on documenting all of Britain.

The technology was so unique that became obsolete almost immediately. It required a special LaserDisc player connected to a BBC Master computer with a special controller. The price tag put it out of reach of almost everyone, even schools and libraries.

It’s a prime example of the challenges of digital preservation.

Moreover, copyright issues — as well as the sheer volume of content — have raised questions over whether some the content could ever be used again. It is certainly difficult to replicate the original experience (although a few YouTube videos give a flavour).

This article goes into some of the thinking behind the technology decisions, and makes a valiant case that the Domesday Project is not a failure, as some like to think of it.

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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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The Apple Podcasts Chart is screwed. How should we replace it?

This article by James Cridland lays bare just how widespread the gaming of Apple’s podcasts chart is.

I have heard presenters pleading with their listeners to unsubscribe, then resubscribe to help improve their position in the chart. Apparently it works.

What I don’t understand is why Apple let this happen? I’m sure it’s not an easy problem to fix. But it surely can’t be as hard as penalising dodgy SEO tactics or email spam filters. What’s in it for Apple?

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Google is undermining one big reason why people flocked to Gmail in the first place

Jordan Novet wonders why Google hasn’t updated storage limits for years.

One reason [Gmail] was revolutionary was its gigabyte of free storage space — the idea being that you wouldn’t have to constantly be deleting email in order to keep things going.

But today, I’m in a jam. I’ve run out of space across Gmail, the Google Drive storage service and the Google Photos app.

It’s a problem I felt, until I started compressing photos in Google Photos (and I haven’t genuinely noticed a downside of compressing them).

Once upon a time it felt like storage would never be an issue. Charles Arthur noted that perhaps the world is running out of storage. “Wouldn’t that be a thing? No room left on the internet.”

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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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Facebook is giving advertisers access to your shadow contact information

Facebook is not content to use the contact information you willingly put into your Facebook profile for advertising. It is also using contact information you handed over for security purposes and contact information you didn’t hand over at all, but that was collected from other people’s contact books, a hidden layer of details Facebook has about you that I’ve come to call “shadow contact information.”

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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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Why the future of data storage is (still) magnetic tape

A fascinating and entertaining piece about why tape is still used so much for data storage. I sort of knew that tape was still used a lot, but I didn’t know why, and I assumed that it was a legacy thing. This article taught me otherwise. And the security benefits are particularly interesting.

It’s true that tape doesn’t offer the fast access speeds of hard disks or semiconductor memories. Still, the medium’s advantages are many. To begin with, tape storage is more energy efficient: Once all the data has been recorded, a tape cartridge simply sits quietly in a slot in a robotic library and doesn’t consume any power at all. Tape is also exceedingly reliable, with error rates that are four to five orders of magnitude lower than those of hard drives. And tape is very secure, with built-in, on-the-fly encryption and additional security provided by the nature of the medium itself. After all, if a cartridge isn’t mounted in a drive, the data cannot be accessed or modified. This “air gap” is particularly attractive in light of the growing rate of data theft through cyberattacks.

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It’s time to say goodbye to Twitter

sonniesedge on taking a break from Twitter.

That cross-pollination of views that you might never have heard before is still Twitter’s amazing core feature. I learned so much about intersectional justice from the people on it. I heard disabled people’s voices. I saw the world from the point of view of women of colour. I saw political issues that I’d never been aware of before.

But lurking behind those vitally interesting points of view is a host of people ready to push the kindness of humanity through the mincer with their keyboards.

When I decided to reduce my use of social media, I expected that I wouldn’t miss Twitter. Its tendency to generate more heat than light is a great detriment.

But even while I don’t post so often on Twitter, I found that I still get some enjoyment from reading Twitter, and I still turn to it a few times a day. In comparison, giving up posting to Facebook has been a piece of cake, and I don’t remotely miss having Instagram on my phone. But Twitter still seems to bring me value, despite its problems.

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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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The future of SEO has never been clearer (nor more ignored)

I don’t always pay attention to SEO stuff, but I found this analysis of trends in search interesting. It seems that search engines are sending less and less traffic to websites. It’s interesting to compare this trend to the original Google ethos, which was that wanting to keep people on your own site was crazy. But that’s where Google seem to be now.

Much like how today I’d take 10 email subscribers to my newsletter over 1,000 Facebook “likes,” I think in the future, we’d all much rather have 10 Google searches for our brand name than 1,000 Google searches for phrases on which we’re trying to both rank and compete for a click against Google themselves.

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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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Just write

Sara Soueidan on why you should just write, regardless of what the voice in your head may be telling you.

Start a blog and publish your writings there. Don’t think about whether or not people will like or read your articles — just give them a home and put them out there.

Most popular blogs I know started out as a series of articles that were written for the authors themselves, as a way to document their process and progress for their future selves to reference when they needed to.

Like Sara, I have found it difficult at times over the years to publish stuff to my blog, out of fear that it wouldn’t be good enough.

Over this past year I have committed to publishing something every day. It is not always high-quality. But doing so has been good for me, and has achieved most of what I had hoped for.

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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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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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The six main stories, as identified by a computer

We have all heard the idea that there are only a handful of different stories. Now we can feed stories into computers to see the six different story arcs that exist — the extrapolation of an idea first expressed by Kurt Vonnegut.

This may not seem like anything special, Vonnegut says—his actual words are, “it certainly looks like trash”—until he notices another well known story that shares this shape. “Those steps at the beginning look like the creation myth of virtually every society on earth. And then I saw that the stroke of midnight looked exactly like the unique creation myth in the Old Testament.” Cinderella’s curfew was, if you look at it on Vonnegut’s chart, a mirror-image downfall to Adam and Eve’s ejection from the Garden of Eden. “And then I saw the rise to bliss at the end was identical with the expectation of redemption as expressed in primitive Christianity. The tales were identical.”

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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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A spectre is haunting Unicode

Some meaningless Japanese characters (known as ghost characters) have been included in Unicode — and no-one knows why. Although there are some pretty good theories.

[S]everal of the added characters had no obvious sources, and nobody could tell what they meant or how they should be pronounced. Nobody was sure where they came from. These are what came to be known as the ghost characters (幽霊文字).

See also: Big tech warns of ‘Japan’s millennium bug’ ahead of Akihito’s abdication.

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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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Autechre on their epic NTS Sessions, David Lynch, and where code meets music

A good interview with Autechre in which they reveal a little more about their techniques. It explains a fair bit about why their sound is so unique, and why other people can’t (or shouldn’t) emulate it.

It gets a bit hazy in terms of what’s a musical idea and what’s a piece of technology. If you make a sequencer that only makes one type of sequence, and you’ve used it twice, then I guess you’ve used the same musical idea twice…

Our system is great for making Autechre tracks, but I’m not sure if everybody else wants to do that. And if they do, I’m not sure I want them to.

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How to set up a website: a guide for the alt-right

Are you a fascist? Have you been throwing your toys out the pram because some digital platforms have finally grown a pair and removed you? If so, Bruce Lawson has some advice for you on how the open web works.

Of course, it’s perfectly possible no-one will visit your website to read how Bin Laden faked the moon landings in order to draw attention from the fact that Marilyn Monroe was a CIA-funded muslim who invented income tax and fluoridated water in order to seize your guns and pollute your precious bodily fluids. But that’s freedom.

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