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Facebook is a utility; utilities get regulated

I have only just discovered this article by Danah Boyd from 2010 (and I can’t remember how). But reading it today, it feels very prescient.

I hate all of the utilities in my life. Venomous hatred. And because they’re monopolies, they feel no need to make me appreciate them. Cuz they know that I’m not going to give up water, power, sewage, or the Internet out of spite. Nor will most people give up Facebook, regardless of how much they grow to hate them.

How many people — like me — hate Facebook, but find themselves unable to give it up?

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How context is bridging the gap between UX and service design

Interesting on the similarities and differences between user experience and service design.

Service Designers generally approach digital as one of a number of interconnected touch points. They will usually figure out how all these touch-points work together as a cohesive ecosystem, before handing the design of the specific touch points over to experts.

UX Designers usually approach the problem from the other direction. They start with the core digital experience before exploring the connective tissue that joins their touch-points together. Service Designers tend to have a broader but shallower focus, while UX designers go narrower but deeper.

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The psychological tricks TfL uses to make London’s tube feel faster

A great piece of the little experiments TfL is carrying out in an attempt to improve the efficiency of the London Underground.

But it’s striking that the consensus of most of the experts in this piece seems to be that real improvements wouldn’t be possible without fundamental transformations in the infrastructure.

Short of building new stations and drilling tunnels for larger trains, we’re stuck, says Simeon Koole, lecturer at the University of Bristol. “I would be reluctant to argue there is anything specific about behaviour that makes it difficult to change, and focus more on particular material restrictions of the tube: the confined space limits the possibilities for redesigning tube cars and platforms and therefore for managing passenger flow and conduct.”

But as cities grow, perhaps any little thing we can do will be worth investigating.

See also: The amazing psychology of Japanese train stations

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Two Tottenham tower blocks at risk of catastrophic collapse

According to this article, these buildings have just failed tests that have been in place since the aftermath of the Ronan Point collapse in 1968.

…but the problems at Broadwater Farm were only uncovered in the last 12 months.

If I’m reading this article correctly, that means that these buildings have been unsafe for 40 years — but that has only just been discovered.

“It’s disgusting and it is very stressful,” said one woman who has lived in the same flat in Tangmere for 38 years. “Ain’t it funny this has just come out after Grenfell?”

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The problem of zero and one

Excellent piece by Wojtek Kutyla on why UX needs to get out of its comfort zone, and an excessive focus on technology — and the temptation to make binary declarations.

We are all reasonable creatures and we know how to seek rationale when we’re dealing with daily tasks. If we’re hungry, we’ll ask ourselves: “What do I want to eat? Eggs? Avocado? Or a burger?”. If we’re planning to buy a new car, we’ll consider it carefully, basing our ultimate choice on how functional the vehicle is and whether we can afford it.

Yet, when faced with a design problem in a professional setting we’d often go for a solution that does nothing else but fulfils a set of requirements based on assumed values communicated by stakeholders. All too seldom we’re doubting their choices and ask “what’s the rationale — where did this come from?”. Perhaps we should start doing that?

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Britain’s open borders policy

Whilst cycling the other day, I crossed the Leicestershire-Rutland border. And I was shocked to see…nothing. No border controls, no passport checks, no customs officials. Here in Rutland we have an open borders policy.

Chris Dillow makes the point that most of the debate around immigration and borders does not relate to economics.

This is part of the reason why it’s futile to try to argue with Brexiteers or Scottish independence fanatics around the economics of creating new borders. When it comes down to it, they just don’t care.

Economicky arguments for migration controls are just distractions and, I suspect, often dishonest ones.

Feelings around immigration boil down to feelings about the other.

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It’s time to rebuild the web

A reflection from Mike Loukides on Anil Dash’s recent piece on the missing building blocks of the web (which I also wrote about a few weeks ago).

His remarks on the state of RSS particularly resonate with me. Ever since Google killed off Google Reader, I have relied on Feedly. I have always had an uneasy relationship with Feedly. It seems somehow both bloated, and lacking in useful features.

It seems to be increasingly pitched at teams and businesses — the sort of audience Slack attracts. But RSS needs to be pitched at everyday individual users of the web who want to keep abreast of blogs and the like. That is the spirit of the web we have lost, and we need to return to.

Simplicity is a discipline, and not an easy one. However, by losing tons of bloat, we’d end up with a web that is much faster and more responsive than what we have now. And maybe we’d learn to prize that speed and that responsiveness.

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Canada 2005: A record-breaking race that won’t be matched behind a paywall

I didn’t know that this was the most-watched Formula 1 race in history. As this article points out, it seems unlikely at this stage that this record will ever be beaten.

I was struck that this happened the very year before CVC Capital Partners bought their stake in F1. 🤔

They made it their business not to invest in the sport (quite the opposite, in fact). F1’s slow decline began then.

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This ancient laptop is the only key to the most valuable supercars on the planet

McLaren used the most advanced (and expensive) parts and materials to build the F1s, like kevlar and gold. But despite all those motorsport-grade cables, early ’90s technology means they were also equipped with early ’90s microchips.

One irony of using cutting-edge technology is that it can in fact date the most quickly. The legendary McLaren F1 requires an early 1990s Compaq laptop with a bespoke conditional access card in order to be serviced. Despite being old technology, the laptop is so valuable for this purpose that it is worth thousands of pounds itself.

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Hacking your innovation mindset

Design thinking is about being a problem finder, not just a problem solver.

This line has reminded me of a project or two from the past year. Some of my biggest eureka moments have been around understanding what the problem actually was, and not what I had been told it was.

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The endowment effect: Why you can’t let go of your possessions

Insights from behavioural science on why people overvalue possessions they already own.

Psychologists have also concluded that this overvaluation may stem from our sense of ownership itself. We value something more simply because it is ours. If we own a car, laptop, or watch of a certain model, we would similarly overvalue that same object owned by someone else because we own one ourselves.

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Dear conference organisers: You’re doing chairs wrong

Nearly every femme-identifying person I know, myself included, has wrestled with tall bar stools, director’s chairs, and the dreaded microphone dance.

A great piece with many lessons.

Most men would probably never think of this, even though most women are all too aware of it — a classic case of design bias.

It would be easy to blame clothes instead. But why should you? Especially if certain clothes make speakers feel and perform better, which is what the conference organiser would want.

When you’re going to a panel, you want to be able to wear what makes you feel your best, which isn’t easy when you’re sitting with clenched thighs, wondering every few seconds if you’re showing too much leg.

And finally, the simple solution:

Don’t like the chair? Ask the organiser to change it.

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Childish Gambino’s This is America and how the internet killed the cultural critic

How considered criticism has been replaced by mindless churnalism collating stuff an under-pressure journalism has hurriedly gathered up on Twitter.

Floating to the top of my feed was an article in the Guardian: “This is America: theories behind Childish Gambino’s satirical masterpiece”. This video is popular, it said, then asked: “But what does it mean?”. Yes, I thought, that’s exactly what I’m here to find out. But instead of an answer, I got a summary of tweets and notes from Genius. No interpretations were drawn, no conclusions reached. Was it a masterpiece? The headline said so, but the piece just linked to tweets by Janelle Monáe and Erykah Badu.

I grew tired long ago of news stories that are basically just lists of other people’s tweets. I have even noticed BBC News doing this. Yet again, I’m left wondering if most of the media’s problems are with their own unwillingness to pursue quality.

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We are all trapped in the “Feed”

Om Malik summarises the problem with the big social media companies whose algorithms are causing us to drown in junk content.

Many have forgotten, but services like Digg helped popularize the idea of what I call intellectual spam. Headlines, followed by vapid content, meant to attract the likes. Against such a backdrop, a decade ago, we all assumed that the rise of the personal web, shaped by individual data would result in signals that will help us dampen the noise. We thought that our systems would get smarter, learning from our behavior, and we would be able to separate signal from noise. And this would allow us to focus our attention on the meaningful and essential.

Unfortunately, the reality of capitalism and turned that dream into a big giant popularity contest, shaped by crude tools – likes, hearts, retweets, and re-shares. We have created systems that boost noise and weaken signals. Every time I tune into news and all I see is noise rising to the top. Whether it is YouTube or Instagram — all you see are memes that are candy-colored candy, mean to keep us hooked.

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Revealed: How Britain’s biggest local TV company has “gamed” the BBC for licence fee payers’ money

Jeremy Hunt’s scheme to create a network of low-budget local TV stations was absurd from the get-go. Seven years on, it is clear that the scheme is a complete flop, with many of the stations unable to make ends meet.

In Scotland, STV2 — which was made up of five local licenses — is being closed down. The licenses appear to have been sold to the largest local TV company, That’s TV.

This BuzzFeed article outlines exactly how delightful this operation appears to be.

In summary, this is a company that seems to have been set up with the intention of exploiting the local TV model to extract license fee payers’ cash from the BBC in exchange for unusable local news reports made by inexperienced and poorly-paid reporters.

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The cult of the complex

Jeffrey Zeldman becomes the latest voice to bemoan the increasing and unnecessary complexity of modern web development.

As a designer who used to love creating web experiences in code, I am baffled and numbed by the growing preference for complexity over simplicity. Complexity is good for convincing people they could not possibly do your job. Simplicity is good for everything else.

See also: Why the cruel culture of coding is damaging society

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The internet is going the wrong way

A short and snappy summary of why and how the internet has gone wrong.

The Internet is a place for the people, like parks, libraries, museums, historic places. It’s okay if corporations want to exploit the net, like DisneyLand or cruise lines, but not at the expense of the natural features of the net.

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Flashback: How Yahoo killed Flickr and lost the internet

This page was published in 2013 as a flashback to an article seemingly written in 2012. It underlines just how slow and painful a death Flickr had. Reading this six years on is a fascinating reminder of just what could have been.

By 2012, Flickr was already on its knees, having suffered years of mismanagement under Yahoo. That mismanagement is picked apart in excruciating detail here. The article ends by asking, is it too late to save Flickr?

Flickr’s last best hope is that Yahoo realizes its value and decides to spin it off for a few bucks before both drop down into a final death spiral. But even if that happens, Flickr has a long road ahead of it to relevance. People don’t tend to come back to homes they’ve already abandoned.

Six years on, Yahoo has lurched from laughing stock to irrelevance, while Flickr has finally been sold off to SmugMug. It’s a good time to reflect on this early days of Flickr and wonder if it could ever return. But as I already noted this year, it is probably far too late.

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Why small teams win

Paul Taylor argues that small teams are undervalued, drawing an interesting comparison with introverts.

These small teams promote autonomy but also a better approach to collaboration. Having lots of small teams means they all need to be able to work together and to be able to access the common resources of the company, in order to achieve their larger goals.

The thinking has precedence in things like Brooks’ Law – which states that “adding manpower to a late project makes it later.” Getting bigger often means your communication overheads grow and doesn’t necessarily yield faster results. As Brooks said: “Nine women can’t make a baby in one month.”

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Chinese firms pile in to sponsor World Cup 2018 amid Fifa fallout

As Western firms have begun to desert Fifa due to the corruption scandal, Chinese firms have seized the opportunity to “to get their brands in front of billions of global eyeballs”.

It has been noted that companies are more willing these days to take a stand (see also ABC cancelling a sitcom because its star is racist). But this appears to be a western phenomenon.

Chinese firms seem to have no qualms around being associated with Fifa. Perhaps this is a dimension to keep an eye on as China becomes more and more important on the global stage.

This year’s Fifa World Cup provides a unique opportunity for little-known Chinese companies to get huge amounts of exposure to global consumers.

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How much would I have to pay you to quit Facebook?

Many people may feel like they are addicted to Facebook. But it’s amazing to see just how little people actually value it.

Economists have been carrying out experiments to see how much people would have to be paid to do without certain types of websites. By this measure, social media appears to be the very bottom of the pile — worth almost 60 times less than search.

Their rough-and-ready conclusion is that the typical person would have to be paid about $17,500 a year to do without internet search engines, $8,500 to abandon email and $3,500 to quit using digital maps. Video streaming through sites such as Netflix and YouTube is worth over $1,150 a year; ecommerce $850, and social media just over $300.

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The amazing psychology of Japanese train stations

How Japan uses behavioural science (nudge theory) to keep its railways flowing efficiently.

Tokyo is home to the world’s busiest train stations, with the capital’s rail operators handling a combined 13 billion passenger trips annually. Ridership of that volume requires a deft blend of engineering, planning, and psychology. Beneath the bustle, unobtrusive features are designed to unconsciously manipulate passenger behavior, via light, sound, and other means. Japan’s boundless creativity in this realm reflects the deep consideration given to public transportation in the country.

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Food: a class issue

Why Jamie Oliver’s stunts like trying to ban two-for-one pizza offers are counter-productive and damaging to the poor.

…there’s a deeper and nasty question here: if we can’t trust the poor to feed themselves properly, what can we trust them to do?…

The problem is capitalism, not the poor.

Some of you might have an inkling as to why the millionaire Jamie Oliver and old Etonian Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall don’t choose this route.

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After the hiccup

Most customer relationships don’t stumble because something went wrong. Your best customers know that mistakes happen.

It’s what happens next that can cripple the relationship.

I would be tempted to agree with Seth Godin here. But it actually reminded me of the recent incident with Ghostery.

Ghostery is a browser plugin that is supposed to protect your privacy online. But on Friday, when attempting to email its users about GDPR, they accidentally leaked the email addresses of hundreds of their users by CCing them into the email — the most basic and facepalm-worthy data breach of all.

I once briefly used Ghostery. But I uninstalled it after I found it kept on crashing my browser.

My response in this case was to find it deeply ironic that Ghostery should fail at the one thing they were meant to do. It’s true “you had one job” stuff, this. So I deleted my Ghostery account entirely.

Perhaps if my prior experience with Ghostery had been more positive, I would have been more lenient.

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This was England ’90

How the Stone Roses story was bastardised by the music media. I’m not a Stone Roses fan, so I don’t recognise this specific account. But you often do get the sense that at least half of what music journalists say about music is… well… made up?

It was around this time that I started to get the first stirrings of a nasty feeling that my past was being sold back to me…. Suspicious accounts were given of the Spike Island concert as some kind of harmonious pilgrimage to a utopian musical bliss, without a single mention of the smell, the dodgy sound system, the deep techno warmup acts, or the gangs of ne’er-do-wells who clearly weren’t there for the music (and, conversely, referring to the venue as a ‘derelict wasteland’ when it had actually been reclaimed as a ‘green space’ several years previously), almost as though they might not actually have been there.

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The problem with professionals

Paul Taylor argues that the professional class will bring about its own demise. He notes that organisations appear to be becoming more, not less, siloed (“whole sectors are still just talking to themselves”). Moreover, this “disconnection” is visible to the general public, who catch glimpses of this behaviour on social media.

A couple of weeks ago I was on holiday flicking through Instagram. By complete chance, the algorithm had placed two photographs directly above each other.

  • Firstly was the imposing black husk of Grenfell Tower – a monument to the dead and ignored.
  • Next to it was a picture from a sector awards ceremony, with a champagne bottle placed in front of some happy smiling ‘professionals’, celebrating how good we are at engaging communities.
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More frequent posting

More on the idea of writing more regularly.

In the Marshmallow Challenge there are two groups of individuals that tend to produce the best results. (Un)surprisingly, structural engineers do well (as you would hope!) but the other highest scoring groups are actually 2nd graders. Yeah, 2nd graders. Not project management teams, or programmers, or MBAs. The reason they were so good is because they didn’t bother wasting time deciding who was going to do what – they just started playing around and building, figuring out what did and didn’t work as they went along. These kids significantly outperformed most adults, other than those who had formal training on how to build things.

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A conversational hierarchy

An attempt to rank ten different types of conversation.

I am always amazed by how much people are willing to divulge on public transport. They list what they’re having for dinner tonight, they explain their aches and pains in detail, or they slag off Jennifer from Accounts. Of course what I forget is that when I’m on the bus with a friend we’re usually having similar conversations, and so engrossed that we never notice those sitting nearby can hear every word.

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Your employees’ user experience should be a strategic priority

Enterprise software is notoriously bad — and that’s bad for business.

A poor user interface sends a message to employees that their time and commitment have little value, and that — just as my engineer colleague believed — the problem is their own fault. Then leaders wonder why their people don’t innovate or embrace change…

There’s a lot of good stuff here, so I had some trouble picking just one thing to highlight. Read on to see why actually watching people try to use your design is vital.

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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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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 national standard kilogram

Diamond Geezer reflects on a visit to see the national standard kilogram, the UK’s copy of the block of metal that officially defines how much a kilogram weighs. Highly interesting and informative — not least because I didn’t realise the definition of a kilogram is about to be updated, making the international prototype redundant.

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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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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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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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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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How F1 has changed – for better and worse – in my 300 races

I really enjoyed this look back by veteran F1 journalist Dieter Rencken, who has been covering the sport since 1997.

I was particularly struck by his observations on how the costs of running a team have evolved over that time.

[In 1997] No fewer than seven [engine manufacturers] – Ferrari, Ford, Hart, Mercedes, Mugen, Renault and Yamaha – were represented, with engines then typically costing up to $40m for a season supply. Against that, budgets peaked at around $80m, so engines accounted for 50 per cent of spend.

2018 budgets run to $300m (plus), with engines pegged at around $25m, yet team bosses complain the power units are too expensive… while kicking against budget caps!

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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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Do academic disciplines engage society?

An idea for how academia can make itself more relevant and accessible:

[I]t has been my view that universities should present their ‘shop windows’ in a more thematic way, with less of an emphasis on traditional Faculty structures (law, economics, physics, engineering, and so forth), and more on issues of general public and social concern. This will be easier if we do not construct all academic argument around the single subjects in which we were once trained.

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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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