what we am are

just try everything

there is an option during an interaction with a particular screen, page, interface, device, port, socket, panel, window etc., that can be so effective that its a wonder we don’t do it from the outset and avoid all that well-thought-out user experience nonsense. its the option I most often select when I’m beginning to feel the vein on my forehead and there’s small beads of ‘stay calm’ sweat forming on my temples. more often than not, its when I’m trying to find the enhancements panel in window media player, or wondering why on earth something that used to be quite so simple in windows XP needs to be quite so appallingly difficult in vista, but quite often, its at the point when I have piece of hardware A that need to somehow interface with hardware B in order to successfully deliver experience C.

its normally at that point I just try everything. this is actually more successful with hardware issues since notwithstanding the screwdriver/electrical outlet scenario, most should-be-compatible-somehow hardware interfaces allow you do mash them together in any number of ways before doing it the right way. things don’t really get broken much and there’s not very often a knock-on effect to other resources. consider my vein-throbber today. I was only trying to wire in my previously perfectly serviceable 5:1 speaker system into the back of my new desktop system – both dell. of course, since the last computer, they’ve changed the sound card interface and so it all looks a bit different, although its all a bit the same, its just that the 6 jacks plugs and 1 I/O cable for the front left, front right, rear left, rear right, center, subwoofer (I have to say them all out loud like that because the old soundcard configuration utility spoke them out like that like some teutonic sat-nav for audio hardware) now don’t have the same number of sockets and boards and interfaces and things like that to plug into. but they have some of them. needless to say, crawling around the back of a PC with a torch when you’re supposed to be analysing financial consultancy data outputs doesn’t really have a long attention span, so the temples are glistening pretty quickly. I tried a few insertions and extracted myself from under the desk, hitting my head in the process, to see what was coming out, but it was variously a fuzzed warbled cross-phased back-to-front tinny bass calamity of an Aimee Mann track. 3 or 4 swaps and re-insertions and head bangs and torch positionings later, there really wasn’t any progress, and the markings on the interface panel that were supposed to somehow help me out were just making it worse, since they just appeared to be crop circles to me. its at that point I decided it was probably worth the risk to my 800 quid desktop if I just tried everything and anything and just wrapped this sorry exercise up.

needless to say, as soon as I just randomly flapped about with whatever cables and plugs I had in my white-knuckled fist at the time and crammed them into the nearest probable orifice, then hey presto, goodbye caroline. I should have just done that in the first place and saved myself the bother. which is what I subsequently did with windows media player. so craftily obfuscated are the enhancements that rather than navigate a series of contextual menus or follow a meaningfully and meticulously signposted user journey to the graphic equaliser of beelzebub, I just randomly clicked all the buttons on my mouse at stupid speed across all the panels in the media player container. and it worked. I saw a fleeting reference to a fly-out menu that said ‘enhancements…’ and followed that menu thing all the way to frequency nirvana.

so now I’ve got my sound balanced exactly how I want it, and my speakers are working just fine thank you. once I’ve rebuilt the music library I deleted in the process, it’ll be great.

listening post: nothing – I deleted it all

agile user experience design

if you’re subscribed to about 27 job searches like I am and are very specific about the nature of your search parameters, say, ooh, I don’t know, ‘user experience Norwich 100+ miles’, even though you end up with a list of java developers and IT managers in Stevenage, then you’ve undoubtedly seen a proliferation of job specifications that on the surface look like exactly the kind of thing that matches your skillset and you’re just about ready to call up that recruitment consultant who likes using capital letters and concatenations of job titles repeated every other word throughout the advert, when you see, near the end of the page, the ‘Agile’ word. as in, ‘must have experience of working in an Agile environment’. or ‘Agile experience required’. or ‘we follow an Agile development methodology’. or ‘Agile Agile Agile Agile Agile Agile‘. or something like that.

this is fair enough. I applaud the adoption of a structured methodology to support a development process since I know just what a creepy mess it can be to not follow any method at all. and Agile looks like its a reasonable software development practice. it means you do things quite quickly. I can do that. I can do things quite slowly too, but if there’s a team dynamic and a project management style that encourages rapid development and lots of meetings where you stand around each other’s desks pointing at widgets and occasionally breaking out to the whiteboard that doesn’t have any pens, then that’s fine. but just because you do that, it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily following an ‘Agile’ methodology. I mean, its ‘agile’, as in, you’re able to make decisions, act upon them, and reset the project outputs with expediency, but, you know, it might not be necessary to attach a label to it and market it externally as that. you don’t have to have a capital ‘A’. because as soon as you do, you’ve changed the job description entirely.

the role I’m in now is pretty agile. working for clients in the city on software development projects that require daily collaborative sessions on user journey development and wireframe builds necessitates a rapid, robust style of user experience design. I’ve had the luxury, in previous roles, of having lead time for development and intervals of checkpoints measured in weeks, when in reality, a couple of days was probably more sensible. for this project, however, there is a definite urgency, not least driven by expenditure, that requires that the user experience design iterations are compressed into daily outputs and reviews. I can’t say that I prefer working one way or the other, although the day-by-day cycle definitely drives increased output and, as yet, doesn’t appear to impact either the focus on the user or the quality of the output (he says, doing that breathing on his fingernails and polishing them on his chest thing).

so why am I bothered about what somebody calls their particular working environment, when it really doesn’t matter, since it doesn’t effect the ability to deliver engaging, meaningful user experiences? because that word is a barrier to employment. that’s why.

barrier 1: ‘I don’t see that you’ve got enough Agile experience’. this applies when you sit with a development team as part of over 3 hours of face-to-face interviews for a user experience role at a software house in a corner of a business park somewhere between an A-road and another A-road, and are told they work in an ‘Agile’ environment, whereby they do all those things I’ve just mentioned with each other’s desks and whiteboards with dry pens. in this case, no amount of discussion on my part about working to suit the environment and being fine with daily scrum meetings and managing sprints and workstreams and swimlanes or whatever, manages to persuade them that I can work in an ‘Agile’ environment. because I can only demonstrate that I could work in an ‘agile’ environment. I can’t actually check the box, that I probably designed in the first place, that says ‘Agile (make sure its a capital)’. or they just didn’t like me. which is equally likely.

barrier 2: ‘I don’t see that you’ve got enough Agile experience’. fair play that if after half a day of talking to real people in a stuffy conference room about a role that they then use the ‘Agile’ thing to let me down. at least I had an opportunity to demonstrate that I was the right candidate. at least I was across the threshold. at least it was a team of people who at least have their own understanding of what ‘Agile’ means. this is just a mild annoyance. in contrast, what really gets my goat, even though I don’t have one, is the creeping proliferation of ‘Agile’ as a keyword in job descriptions posted via recruitment partners on behalf of clients. this nastiness is much worse, because it actively excludes potential candidates before they even have the chance to demonstrate their worth. it is the doubled-edged sword of internet recruitment whereby I might maximise my presence in searches or on recruitment portals by ensuring that ‘user experience’ or ‘information architecture’ or ‘UX’ or ‘IA’ is a key attribute such that searches will find me. and that’s pretty successful. mind you, you can probably find me if you search for ‘Norwich’ and ‘idiot’ or something, but that’s a different user altogether. the downside of optimisation in this case is that I don’t use the ‘Agile’ keyword to enable a higher ranking. that’s to say, when those machine-driven CV scrapers are trawling for candidates based on a job description with ‘User Experience’ in the title and with ‘Agile’ as a keyword requirement, I’m probably not on the list. unless its for a job in Norwich. which it never will be. why not just add ‘Agile’ to my CV? because, in fact, and to the point, I can’t honestly say I’ve worked anywhere that has used the ‘Agile’ word, despite the fact they might be ‘agile’, so I don’t use the word. It would be a lie.

barrier 3: ‘I don’t see that you’ve got enough Agile experience’. slightly more galling than not even getting onto a shortlist is getting onto a shortlist managed by an agent acting on your behalf who understands what ‘Agile’ is marginally less than they understand what’ User Experience’ is. I have to say, I have come across some excellent recruiters at some excellent agencies, and they really understand the marketplace and the applicability of roles to my experience. but they don’t manage all the client relationships. there are numerous black holes I’ve been down whereby the only application route is online to an agency I’ve never heard of to a client I don’t know, based on a job description I quite like the look of (which, coincidentally, pays going rate). after falling through the silent vacuum for a few days, not really getting any indication of application status, I might endeavour to find out what’s going on. if I’m lucky, the application process will have yielded a phone number for the recruiter which means I can actually follow it up. if I’m unlucky, I’ll contact them and they’ll say ‘yeah, I saw your CV, but I don’t see that you’ve got enough Agile experience, and they said they were looking for that, so I didn’t feel I could put you forward’, or ‘yeah, I saw your CV, and they liked the look of you, but they didn’t see you had enough Agile experience, so they didn’t select you for interview’, or ‘Tim Caynes? What job was that? User Information what?’ . its the human interpretation barrier that is the worst. I’m reliant on a third party communicating to a forth party about my personal experience and applicability when they have to negotiate around a keyword that neither they understand or I believe should be a gating factor. or they just didn’t like me. which is equally likely.

as Rob said the other day ‘Agile? That’s just working quickly, right?’ I can do that. Do I need to pass an exam or something?

listening post: the who – 5:15

well, this is embarrasing, firefox

I used to put hidden messages in programs. I’d wait for unsuspecting users to generate an error and then display something like “I’m sorry, you can’t do that, that’s rubbish”, or “Please enter a number. Not a name. Least of all your name”, or “Boing! Not Correct!”. but then, see, I was just writing some subroutine in a telnet client or something which only worked on a single server that a handful of people had the misfortune to interact with. I was young. it was funny. once.

since then, I’ve often seen similar mildly-amusing-once-if-that messages generated by alert conditions or error messaging in applications that I’m trying to use to achieve some workpath goal. not necessarily a particularly important goal, but all the same, its during an interaction I’m having using an application I’m trusting to just enable me to get on with it. usually its just a trivial cuteness, like an ‘oops!’ when I’m trying out the beta of brizzly and it fails to do something because the twitter api has prolapsed. sometimes its more terse and slightly more annoying, like a ‘something is wrong’ followed by a calamitous fail that condemns my unsaved spreadsheet formulas to an inglorious uncertain document recovery undeadness. but sometimes, its an overly smug acknowledgement that something went wrong but, hey, its ok, because things go wrong, right? we don’t know why, but, you know, never mind.

I do mind. I am slightly irritated that it is acceptable that an error condition can be apparently rendered less important simply by adding a spoonful of pith and a continue button. I’d almost prefer a with a stack trace dump in it, which, if you don’t know what that is, is as dull as it sounds, but at least its specific, and relevant. the latest incarnation of this creeping error-as-friend experience that I’ve been invited to share is the ‘well, this is embarrassing’ condition as blarted out by the most recent release of firefox. simply put, if firefox crashes unceremoniously, probably because my laptop battery has run out or something, then the next time it starts, it throws a mini hissy fit and refuses to load the tabbed content it apparently knows that it should be loading. which it finds embarrassing. maybe not as embarrassing as the fact that I seemed to be preoccupied with pubs and hardware last time firefox crashed, but, ooh, sorry, a bit embarrassing, all the same. I mean, the rest of the error is quite specific and possibly even quite helpful, but nonetheless, the context in which it sits is now one of over-friendly banter, which does nothing to reassure me at all.

I might be being a tad over-zealous. after all, its just a little jokey headline. but I’ve now seen it about 9 times. and its starting to grate. and that’s my point, such as I ever make a coherent one. be careful where you pith.