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Technology

Good writing and analytics don’t mix

If you want to be a good writer then you can’t worry about the numbers. The stats, the dashboards, the faves, likes, hearts and yes, even the claps, they all lead to madness and, worst of all in my opinion, bad writing.

Recently I have been thinking a bit about what stats trackers I should be running on my blog, particularly in light of GDPR. I currently run three, and I wonder if I should cut this back.

Robin Rendle’s blog post has got me wondering further if it’s just a bad idea to worry about — or even be aware of — how many people are reading.

It’s always tempting to look at the stats. But I also know that the most-viewed posts are not the highest quality ones. So perhaps it’s better to focus on improving something other than the numbers.

See also: Escaping Twitter’s self-consciousness machine, on what happens when you remove all metrics from the Twitter interface.

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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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I don’t know how to waste time on the internet anymore

I did not know what to type into the address bar of my browser. I stared at the cursor. Eventually, I typed “nytimes.com” and hit enter. Like a freaking dad. The entire world of the internet, one that used to boast so many ways to waste time, and here I was, reading the news.

On the loss of the old culture of the internet, “made for dicking around”.

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Hand-coded digital artwork “Francine” is skewing your online reality

I never used to see the point in stunts like “I created Bart Simpson in pure HTML and CSS, look at me!” But I have to admit that the work of Diana Smith is seriously cool.

It is all the more awesome when you consider how viewing it on older browsers turns the work into wonderful, glitchy, accidental versions that look like they were inspired by De Stijl.

This is like a modern version of the Acid tests. I remember showing examples of the Acid II test during presentations some years ago to explain how different browsers could interpret the same code differently. But I think this example gets it across so much better.

It’s also a warning not to build our webpages for Chrome only.

In a cultural moment where reality distortion is rampant, and it’s hard to get a consistent version of facts from person to person, it’s critical to understand that something as basic as a browser update, or switching from one browser to another, can drastically change the way we perceive information.

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Google Duplex is not creepy

Further to my point yesterday about why I don’t agree that Google’s new AI-powered phone calling technology is creepy.

…we live in a world where most restaurants and shops can only really be dealt with by phone – which is very convenient and nice, but (to varying degrees) it doesn’t work for deaf people, introverts, anyone with a speech impediment or social anxiety, or people from Glasgow. Those people have every right to a nice dinner and this makes it possible – or at least much easier.

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Lots of people think Google’s new AI-powered phone calls are creepy. I don’t quite follow this. Big companies have been making normal people speak to robots for decades. This isn’t a new concept. The difference is that this gives ordinary people the opportunity to do to big companies what big companies have been doing to them all along.

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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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The societal benefits of smart speakers

There is a tendency to focus on the negative aspects of new technologies, and smart speakers are no different. This article focuses on the benefits that smart speakers are bringing to society.

We don’t always think of these type of use cases when we’re designing. Creators of a home assistant robot were surprised when their first real user, a quadriplegic man, immediately asked the robot to fetch a towel to wipe his mouth. It was certainly not the top capability the creators of the helper robot had designed it for, but sometimes these automated devices give us something we don’t always think enough about: our dignity.

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The Facebook current

The Senate hearing into Facebook has come to be seen as a bit of a sideshow, partly because the questioning was so inadequate. But this article outlines why it was a bigger deal than it might seem at first glance.

[T]here was a significant amount of agreement amongst the Senators… that something needed to be done about Facebook. Forget the specifics, for a paragraph, because this is a notable development: while these hearings usually devolve into partisan cliches with the same talking points — Democrats want regulations, and Republicans don’t — yesterday Senators from both sides of the aisle expressed unease with Facebook’s handling of private data; obviously Democrats tried to tie the issue to the last election, but that made the Republicans’ shared concern all-the-more striking.

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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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The media vs tech battle that nobody can win

Yet again, Thomas Baekdal has a genuinely informative and enlightening take on the turf war the media is trying to wage against tech companies.

Essentially, traditional media and technology are trying to solve a similar problem — but from different directions.

We accept that newspapers can’t cover everything in exchange for a demand for higher quality reporting for the things they do pick. And we accept that, on channels such as YouTube, we will always be able to find the occasional piece of bad content, in exchange for the flexibility and the wealth of things that we can see.

It strikes me that we need to have both. We already knew that good journalism and high-quality media products will always exist. But they need to focus on making those high-quality products rather than constantly reacting in counter-productive ways to the perceived threat of technological change.

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WhatsApp founder plans to leave after broad clashes with parent Facebook

Jan Koum, the co-founder of WhatsApp, is leaving. Apparently, he clashed with Facebook over how they use WhatsApp users’ personal data.

This comes just months after the other co-founder of WhatsApp, Brian Acton, left — and endorsed the #DeleteFacebook hashtag.

[E]ven in the early days, there were signs of a mismatch… Koum and Acton were openly disparaging of the targeted advertising model…

The WhatsApp co-founders were also big believers in privacy. They took pains to collect as little data as possible from their users, requiring only phone numbers and putting them at odds with data-hungry Facebook.

All of which gets me wondering, why did they even sell up to Facebook in the first place? 🤔

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The Facebook algorithm mom problem

An excellent description of one of the reasons I developed a distaste for Facebook for.

I write my content on my own personal site. I automatically syndicate it to Facebook. My mom, who seems to be on Facebook 24/7, immediately clicks “like” on the post. The Facebook algorithm immediately thinks that because my mom liked it, it must be a family related piece of content…

The algorithm narrows the presentation of the content down to very close family. Then my mom’s sister sees it and clicks “like” moments later. Now Facebook’s algorithm has created a self-fulfilling prophesy and further narrows the audience of my post. As a result, my post gets no further exposure on Facebook…

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How can we incentivise the digital world to make safer services?

How regulation came to be in railways, engineering and cars — and what this tells us about how digital services may be regulated.

Trigger points for regulation have varied depending on the field, the period of history and the country. However, the thing all these triggers have in common is a change in attitudes. People need to demand change to incentivize companies to make their products and services safer.

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Google AMP for Email: What it is and why it’s a bad idea

I have been following the controversy around AMP fairly closely. A lot of people whose opinions I respect are against AMP generally, although I still cautiously think AMP is generally a good thing. At least, it is in my view clearly better than Facebook Instant Articles.

So if AMP is Google’s response to Facebook, I am in favour of it. Facebook’s interest is clearly to keep people in the Facebook ecosystem. AMP may give Google some a bit of control over content, but it still keeps it fundamentally of the web. At least you don’t have to use Google to use AMP.

However, AMP for Email seems far more obviously bad. Not least because, as this article points out, it appears to be a solution looking for a problem.

There may be cause to be wary of Google’s intentions after all.

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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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MySpace Tom beat Facebook in the long run

“Wouldn’t you rather be a rich nobody than whatever Mark Zuckerberg is?”

I love this perspective. Tom from MySpace may have been a bit of a laughing stock for a while. But you have to say, he must be feeling a bit better than Mark Zuckerberg is right now.

It puts MySpace’s failure to evolve in a new light, as perhaps the healthy thing is for a platform to die and for everyone to move on.

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Design for navigational momentum and unity

When trying to persuade people not to overload their navigation menus, I have often drawn an analogy with road signs. These must be a model of brevity, because drivers need to be able to digest them quickly.

Web users may not be travelling at 60mph, but they still want to get their stuff done quickly.

I enjoyed this Gerry McGovern article that draws a similar analogy:

The core purpose of navigation is to help you move forward. Designing digital navigation is not that different from designing navigation for a road. You always want to be able to help people maintain their momentum and get to their destination as quickly as possible. The essence of momentum is to help people move forward, and this is the essential purpose of navigation—to help people move forward.

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Why the web will win

A reminder of the web’s resilience.

The web is designed to be open-source, and therefore it is designed to last.

Tim Berners-Lee’s 1989 proposal for the World Wide Web wasn’t the most technically sophisticated vision of the early internet, nor was it the most popular at the time. However, in 1993, Berners-Lee and CERN open-sourced all of the technology associated with the World Wide Web. The open nature of the World Wide Web meant it could be implemented by anyone, anywhere, on any computer.

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Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica problems are nothing compared to what’s coming for all of online publishing

More on the hypocrisy of media organisation going after Facebook (which I recently wrote about).

What will happen when the Times, the New Yorker and other pubs own up to the simple fact that they are just as guilty as Facebook of leaking its readers’ data to other parties, for—in many if not most cases—God knows what purposes besides “interest-based” advertising?

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Publishers haven’t realised just how big a deal GDPR is

With the media still consumed with scrutinising Facebook, Thomas Baekdal once again points out that it is the media who appear to be less prepared to deal with privacy trends and comply with new regulations like GDPR.

It’s interesting that Thomas Baekdal has emphasised that this is not only important for compliance. But because it is becoming a fundamental expectation.

He notes the clear changes that Google and Facebook have made in reaction to GDPR. In contrast to publishers.

I have yet to see any publisher who is actually changing what they are doing. Every single media site that I visit is still loading tons of 3rd party trackers. They are still not asking people for consent, in fact most seem to think they already have people’s consent…

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Facebook and the end of the world

When the world goes up in flames, the handful of people left in the burning ruins of civilization will shrug, look at their feet, and—from inside a deep black hole of unending ennui—mumble pathetically how ironic and silly it is that the thing that ultimately took us all down was Facebook.

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The death of clothing

Clothing sales are on the decline. Guess what? Millennials are to blame.

In seriousness though, it is interesting to consider the declining role of clothing in how people express themselves.

As clothing sales have declined, technology purchases have climbed — as have experiences.

So, pay for a good smartphone. Go on an experience. Brag about it on social media. A new pair of jeans would seem weak in comparison.

Who needs fashion these days when you can express yourself through social media? Why buy that pricey new dress when you could fund a weekend getaway instead?

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The Dunning-Kruger effect in innovation

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes the phenomenon whereby people with relatively little experience feel a high degree of confidence. This point is known as Mt Stupid.

Following this is the valley of despair, where the person loses their confidence, before slowly climbing the slope of enlightenment. The shape of this curve is strikingly similar to the Gartner hype cycle.

It is always tempting to think that I myself was atop Mt Stupid a couple of years ago, thereby making me on my way up the slope of enlightenment. However, I think this every time I see it.

This article makes the wise point that you can be on the slope of enlightenment for some issues, and still climbing your way to Mt Stupid on others.

However, given that the human condition makes it difficult for each of us to realise the limitations of our own knowledge, we’ll have to live with temporary outbursts of hubris. There is no reason to be self-complacent. Everybody is a wise expert in only a few things, while still climbing Mt Stupid in many, many others.

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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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An ode to writing with a human voice

More on the apparent decline of blogs from the Government Digital Service (GDS).

This article makes the excellent counterpoint to a recent GDS post apparently attempting to address the debate around the quality of their recent blogging efforts.

The measures of success cited include levels of ‘engagement’, aligning posts with campaigns, and instances of very senior officials publishing posts. This, to me, fundamentally misunderstands the value of blogging compared with more ‘formal’ communications. Aligning blogs more closely with PR activity doesn’t strengthen blogs— it nullifies their distinct value.

Of course, it is not just GDS who have suffered.

In the early days, blogging and social media was so vital precisely because it wasn’t traditional communications. When the communications people caught wind of the popularity of social media, they took control (which, for some reason, comms people are obsessed with). The comms crowd and the marketing mob turned social media into yet another stifled channel, designed to control the message, thereby destroying actual valuable communication.

See also:

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Small b blogging

I love this idea of small b blogging — pursuing meaningful connections over mass pageviews. You might call it anti-clickbait.

Much of the content that is crammed down our throats through giant platforms like Facebook is designed to grab eyeballs, pageviews and clicks. This sort of content brings transient pleasure, but little real value.

This is similar to my reasons for starting blogging again. While I’m sure I won’t ever again get the same amount of pageviews I used to get in 2006–2007, there is something about regularly reaching a smaller number of people to share something worth writing home about.

It’s a virtuous cycle of making interesting connections while also being a way to clarify and strengthen my own ideas. I’m not reaching a big audience by any measure but the direct impact and benefit is material.

Small b blogging is learning to write and think with the network. Small b blogging is writing content designed for small deliberate audiences and showing it to them. Small b blogging is deliberately chasing interesting ideas over pageviews and scale. An attempt at genuine connection vs the gloss and polish and mass market of most “content marketing”.

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Strategic thinking with blog posts and stickers

There has been a lot of chat recently about the apparent decline in quality of Government Digital Service (GDS) blogs. That debate isn’t explicitly mentioned here by former GDS employee Giles Turnbull. But perhaps this is the blogging equivalent of a subtweet (a subblog?).

The idea is basically this: you think out loud, on your blog, over a long period of time. At least months. Probably years. Each new post is about one thing, and tells a single story of its own, but also adds to the longer narrative. Each new post helps you tell that longer, deeper story, and becomes another linkable part of the timeline.

This also feeds into the wider commentary surrounding the apparent (or perhaps merely hoped-for) resurgence in blogging this year.

I certainly find this a useful contribution in explaining the value of blogging. It must not be run through the traditional communcations department wringer. The whole point of blogging is that is by real people (not comms people), talking about their real experiences and even their mistakes.

If you only talk blandly about your successes, you’re not really talking.

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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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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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Underscores, optimisation and arms races

The story of how one character — the underscore (_) — provided an early glimpse of the problems we now face with dominant tech firms exerting their power over the web.

We found ourselves resistant to what felt like a coercive effect of Google’s rising domination, especially since Google’s own Blogger platform was a competitor of ours. Our expression of that frustration was expressed by a debate over a single character: We were using _ because we thought it looked nicer, so why should we change to – just because Google liked it better? Weren’t they supposed to adapt to what we published on the web?

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Escaping Twitter’s self-consciousness machine

On how the experience of using Twitter is transformed by removing all metrics from the interface.

The article makes a good point about why platforms like Twitter place so much emphasis on numbers:

The type of person who tends to be a high-level coder at a top tech firm… usually got great grades, attended a premier university, and now competes for bragging rights by trying to log the longest hours of anyone at the office. These people thrive in numbers-focussed environments. Perhaps it’s predestined that their world view would infect the user interfaces they create.

It is tempting to think our obsession with metrics is part of human nature. But is it just a trait of a particular type of person?

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Reclaiming my blog as my thought space

Dries Buytaert on reclaiming his blog. It’s just the latest of many blog posts I have read recently from people keen to share more personal content on their own websites.

My blog is primarily read by technology professionals — from Drupal users and developers, to industry analysts and technology leaders — and in my mind, they do not read my blog to learn about a wider range of topics. I’m conflicted because I would like my l blog to reflect both my personal and professional interests.

This is a struggle I well recognise. When Twitter was born, those more personal snippets moved to social media. Bloggers felt the need to become more professional and write more polished, fully-fleshed articles.

But Twitter (and other social media services) no longer fill that gap the way they used to. The most viable answer is to go back to the good old days of more personal blogging.

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My original iPod is a time capsule from 2002

What happened when one person started up his iPod for the first time in 15 years.

…I also came across music and artists which made me wonder what on earth I was thinking of when I loaded their tracks into iTunes. If I could talk to my 2002 self, I would sit him down and explain that Limp Bizkit’s album Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water is an abomination and not at all funny (my London music buddies and I thought it was hilarious at the time)…

…looking back through the playlists on my first and oldest iPod I was struck by the fact that some of the music from 2001 and 2002 seemed far more dated than some of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.

I certainly have a memory of music from 2001/2002. In fact, because of my age, it is precisely when a lot of my favourite music was released. But I do wonder what I would discover if I found my iTunes library from that period, warts and all?

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How liberals amped up a Parkland shooting conspiracy theory

Conspiracy theorists purported that young anti-gun activists are crisis actors. It turns out that those outraged about the theory did more to promote it that the theorists themselves.

Frank Luntz… tweeted in protest of the Gateway Pundit story, becoming one of four non-right-wing amplifiers of the story with verified accounts… The other three are the New York Times’ Nick Confessore, MSNBC producer Kyle Griffin, and former first daughter Chelsea Clinton. Each of them quote-tweeted the Gateway Pundit story to denounce it, but in doing so gave it more amplification.

This is what I meant when I said don’t feed the trolls.

There is a class of professional conversationalists who have realised how this works and have taken advantage. These people express outrageous and offensive opinions specifically because it is a super-efficient way for them to get the publicity they need.

A dangerous man became US president because he understood this, and millions of his opponents didn’t.

The next time someone says controversial, ask yourself why, rise above it, deny them the publicity and move on.

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A few notes on daily blogging

A striking article, partly because I find it slightly eerie that the author chose to start blogging daily on 1 October, the same day I started blogging again.

I haven’t quite managed to blog on a daily basis. Although I do publish something at least once a day, I tend to write multiple posts at a time and schedule them for future publication.

(As an example, I’m writing this on Wednesday 28 February, in the expectation that I will publish it on Tuesday 6 March.)

As a result, I’m not sure I have benefited yet from resuming my regular blogging. Perhaps I will endeavour to carve out some time each day to write something.

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