Things what I writ

I sometimes write nonsense about things to try and sound clever

On being topical

One of the most difficult things to overcome when attempting to create some masterpiece of literary commentary with a topical edge is trying to work out what the topical edge is without coming across like some trollbaiting landgrabber whose only purpose in the act of creation is to somehow capitalise on a zeitgeist that probably isn’t geisting and most likely has run out of zeit in order to further some perceived standing in a peer community whereupon the very act of dribbling inanely onto your ipad keyboard would be celebrated with some not insignificant cacophony of trumpets, trombones, grinding teeth, handclaps, notification alerts and apnoea snort-awakes such that congratulations, you’ve captured the moment like some now fish in your net of insight, grabbed from the jaws of one of those thought leader brown bears poised over the river of consciousness ready to paw a beautiful shimmering leaping thought salmon to thought death AND THEN EAT IT WHOLE WITH THE HEAD AND EVERYTHING.

Sometimes it’s simply a question of saying something because you feel like it for no reason at all. I can pretend that it’s relevant to the current topic somehow by relating it to a current activity, like watching the morning keynote at the IA summit and wondering how my using IA writer and saving into the cloud to write this plays rather neatly into Scott’s contention that I’m locked into some kind of app cave hardwired not to the cloud but to a cloud in the sky of clouds and make some ironic commentary on my connectedness to a old paradigm and how I’m literally careening into the trough of ultimate despair without a smart seat belt, but that would be a pretty cheap shot at crowbarring a topical reference in to a moderately nonsensical accident of prose just because I happen to be talking about this stuff later. I would never do that.

The trouble with context

At the Information Architecture Summit in Baltimore, I’ve just had the pleasure of a full day with Karen McGrane, considering content strategies for mobile which of course isn’t content strategies for mobile at all but content strategies for content which might somehow be consumed by 76% of us using some kind of hand-held device or other as the primary device that we use to consume that stuff because that’s our preference notwithstanding the fact that indeed for some 40% or other of the 76% or other that preference is actually the only option because using a smartphone to access the internet is the only way to do it and don’t forget that an ever-growing percentage or other of the new natives in the 18-24 age range just actually don’t see why you’d want to access the internet on anything other than your smartphone because, like, using a proper computer is what your dad does in the corner of the home office and I should know because that dad is me.

Which is to say, don’t get led astray by implied contexts of physical devices when considering the user needs and behaviours in relation to the structure and organisation of the content they may consume. There is no specific mobile use case that defines a content strategy when considering your options for creating a compelling user experience. There is only content. And the structure of that content. And the user experience of interacting with that content is what defines the context of use. It is a misappropriation of the term to hypothesise scenarios based on context, since context can only ever be undefined up to the point at which the manifestation of the moment of interaction occurs.

We can, of course, be pragmatic and facilitate a conversation about context by making some assumptions about likely renditions of scenes where actors follow a script to bring to life some awkwardly cinematic versions of potentially reasonably representative portrayals of the personification of a user need. These are the ‘what if’ propositions that at least enable us to align our thought gazelles behind a weirdly myopic vision of a real life event. It enables us to say ‘that might happen. what might we consider based on the knowledge acquired from that?’ And actually, we can write pretty good scripts. And we can develop pretty good personas.

But we’re just making it up. And we bring to that imagination every subtle or not so subtle nuance of our own limited experiences and assumptions to the point where we can imagine a whole sundance festival of what ifs but if the only person in the audience for the special screening of ‘a series of what ifs in the style of a seemingly disconnected robert altman style parable that ultimately defines the human experiences but coincidentally demonstrates the likely context of use for you the user’ just sits there slowly shaking their head muttering something like ‘they don’t understand. they don’t understand’ then we’re wasting our time.

Have phone, will travel

This is a blog on a plane. It is the story of a number of systems I’m using to make the overall travel experience simpler, more efficient, and less painful. It will include this plane. It will include a few trains. It might also include a taxi or two. And hotels. And maybe some government systems that will allow me to enter the country without all those questions they felt necessary to ask me back in 1984 because I had a bit of a beard and looked like I maybe hadn’t slept much.

It will definitely include online booking systems.

All of today’s journey was researched online. Of course it was. How else do you do it these days? Nearly all of it was booked online, apart from the taxi. The taxi company we use for work does have some kind of online booking system I think, but it works rather better to phone the night before and tell them in person, because I’m not entirely convinced the online system is anything more than a copy of wordstar sending faxes to a pigeon.

And everything has been tracked online. Confirmation of booking, booking reference, whether the train is on time, what platform it will be on, checking into my fight, getting my boarding pass, checking the plane will be on time, what departure gate it will be at, right up to me sitting here in 27k somewhere over a cloud the size of Greenland, having taken a photo of my feet and a highlife magazine and bored 1044 to death with it on twitter.

When I say online, of course, I mean, on my phone. Everything I’ve mentioned here has been done using my phone. That’s to say the train company, the airline, the hotel chain (not the taxi company) make it possible for me to arrange and book and track an entire travel itinerary just using my phone. I mean, I could have used a desktop computer or a laptop, but, you know, that’s not the first thing we do these days. I fill the gaps between whatever I do either side of gaps by fiddling with my phone. It might as well be productive fiddling. Those companies might as well make it easy to use their service over someone else’s, because, increasingly, if I can’t do it on my phone, I won’t do it at all.

There are of course, some drawbacks to a wholly phone-based travel experience. When I want to print out the hotel details to leave at home, I’m a bit stuck. It’s almost an affront to have to turn on the poor neglected desktop just to connect to a printer. But really, that’s about it. For me, this is an entirely paperless trip. So paperless, in fact, that I forgot to take the most important piece of paper of all. My passport.

Ok, so I didn’t really forget it, BUT I NEARLY DID. That’s a good enough anecdote for me to describe the modern travel experience and how it’s changed our expectations of what is possible. The ubiquity of mobile and its effect on some of our largest ecosystems continues to change the way we manage our lives, mostly, I think, for the better.

I should probably point out the some of the apps and mobile sites I had to use to make this happen were fucking awful, but that might take the edge off my nicely upbeat story, so I won’t.

Design worth doing

I’m in a hotel room with half a bottle of zinfandel and a packet of mini eggs and I’m considering what design means to me which is surely a place that should be populated with mental road signs that only say STOP but curiously say GO like some alternate roadwork universe wherein the boards are all in my favour but I don’t believe them so I immediately inadvertently drive into a ditch which coincidentally was signposted WAKE UP.

Which is by way of unconnected allegory some reference to a dichotomous puzzlement that’s poked my cheek with wet finger pulling a face that says ‘what is design worth if it’s not design worth doing?’ which is some curious garlandian manifestation that has brushed my conscience and ultimately led me to question the thing that I do. Or, at least, the way that I do it. Or maybe it’s why. I’m not entirely sure.

I like designing. I’m quite good at it. I’m lucky enough to do it as the job I get paid for that supports me and my family and my dog and my craving for mini eggs. I don’t change the world with it, but I think, and I create, and I make, and I use unnecessary commas, and everything is quite good with the world. But it’s not a world I’m changing through design. I don’t subscribe to a manifesto that I may have written, consumed, co-opted or saved in google reader, that states that the reason I design the things I design is somehow for the betterment of design as a whole and some better world for the future. I design because I’m a designer. I’m fine with that.

That’s not to say there might be a better way for me to design. That might even mean there’s a better me by design. There are plenty of ways that I, my team, my company, my profession can be better, braver, different in the way design gets realised. And I think that’s something I can try and do something about. I’ve been inspired with that wet-fingered conscience-brushing episode to consider that better way. I’m acknowledging that my hypothesis hasn’t necessarily tested well and I can learn from that and iterate and test. I’m allowing myself to fail in pursuit of a better design me. And I believe that probably is a thing worth doing by design.

But there are others out there for whom that isn’t enough. There is more to design than simply design itself and that more is what can really change the world. That truly is design worth doing and it requires the breath of dreams to power the wings of angels and you know those angels exist but they look just like you and me or maybe in my case about 20 years younger and they actually don’t have a funny noise coming from the exhaust of their Vauxhall Zafira but you know I digress the point is THOSE ANGELS NEED TO FLY.

Design worth doing is a reflection of the change you want to make. Do what it takes to make the change happen. Maybe start with designing a bigger bag of mini eggs or something. OH YOU KNOW WHAT I’M SAYING.

Get personal with personas

“Tim is 44. He likes to create engaging experiences for users, and will spend far too long on the tiniest detail that he thinks makes a subtle difference.”

On this scale he rates highly. On this scale he rates pretty low.

Hopefully, what motivates Tim and determines his relationship with company X, happens to be something that company X happens to be releasing in the next version of product Y.

This places Tim on a matrix that fits in the bottom corner of the page we don’t know what to fill with.”

Persona pitfalls

If this sounds familiar, then you’ve also been on one of those projects where the creation of personas are merely a tick a box in the project plan, and not seen as an opportunity to really understand customer behaviours and motivations, to represent them as accurately as possible throughout the development of a product or service.

Tick box personas are worse than useless. They’re actually anti-personas; nominally a reflection of stakeholder expectations that woefully misrepresents real users.

But let’s be clear. Creating personas that enrich understanding, and guide our design principles is notoriously difficult, even allowing for due diligence on researching users and understanding:

  • behaviours
  • needs
  • motivations
  • peripheral influences
  • personalities
  • back stories


and so on. It takes time to develop, iterate and review personas. It requires a breadth of understanding and skill of interpretation that certainly I don’t pretend to have. I mean, I can create a persona in five minutes; but not a useful one.

Persona benefits

But if they’re done well, personas can really drive a design conversation. What I mean by that, since I just strayed in to slidespeak there, is that well-crafted personas help you understand and validate what’s important from a user’s perspective.

I recently spent some time with a colleague at Foolproof, Mara Protano, developing user journeys and sketching out concepts for a financial services client. Mara had invested a huge amount of effort in researching user types, identifying their experiences and motivations. This allowed her to design, refine, distil and validate a small set of personas that provided a clear reference for us as we began to consider scenarios and usage patterns.

These were proper personas, backed up by a room full of research, and they made a huge difference to the project. You can’t just populate a template and hope to be successful. You have to start with a blank canvas every time and be prepared to justify, argue, and back yourself up when challenged on your deliverables. With her depth of understanding, Mara was able to do this with confidence and clarity whenever we questioned our assumptions.

Persona development can be contradictory. We use personas to validate and stress-test user journeys, scenarios, navigation models and so on, but we often don’t stress-test the personas themselves to see if they withstand scrutiny.

Go persona yourself

To illustrate just how hard it is to create meaningful personas, and how easy it is for them to misrepresent, try this: create a set of personas for your own family (including pets), and then give them to someone who doesn’t know you. Ask them to draw a picture of your family and give it to somebody else who doesn’t know you. Then get that person to describe your family to you. It’s weird, but eye-opening. Imagine those individuals as, say, researcher, UX designer and creative designer, and you’ll see how easily poorly executed personas break down.

Untapped

My first speaking gig was at the IA summit. I mean, I didn’t piss about, I went for it. In the end, it was actually a good place to do your first proper public speaking event, because those IA summit folks really know how to look after first timers. But it was rather a deep-end approach to learning the public speaking thing and a pretty expensive and nerve-wracking one too.

Tonight I’ve spent a most agreeable few hours in the company of some other people having their first go at standing up in front of a room full of their peers, talking out loud, and wondering if the words that are coming out are actually being heard by the people in front of them or they are just being thrown into the air and intercepted by some cognitive unbalance field that catches them, turns them into unintelligible arse and thrusts them backwards into the ears of blank-faced gibbons who are suspended in some alternate time universe where the only facial expressions available are wholly blank or mildly indifferent and the occasional metaphor for insignificance in the face of the impenetrable vastness of the vacuum of space gently drift before your eyes like the last dying leaf of the relevance tree as it flutters downwards amidst the eternity of the silent, slow, nod of the donkey of empathy. Maybe that’s just me.

The untapped event, organised with some impressive vigour by Sophie Freiermuth and Richard Wand at Possible, in London, was an admirable showcase for unheard UX voices from within the community. You know, those people you actually work with who say interesting things, have interesting views, and can have a conversation like real adults do, but don’t seem to have a good place to share that with a wider audience of their peers. Or, if you like, it’s a chance to hear from people you’ve never heard of speaking about things that you’ve often thought of. Or, if you like, it’s just not Jason Mesut again. Honestly, that’s not a dig at Jason Mesut, but he would acknowledge, I’m sure, that he is become one of the UX circuit in the UK, and there is room for others. I might say that say of myself. I dunno. WHATEVER. I’m stuck on a train right now waiting for the fire brigade and national rail to assess a chemical spill just outside Hatfield Peveril, north of Chelmsford and my train hasn’t moved for 30 minutes and I won’t be home until at least 2:30 am and I’m suddenly getting a bit stabby.

Notwithstanding that, the reason for my involvement with the event, and, indeed, Jason’s, was that I had volunteered to help out as a mentor for one of the new speakers. I thought that maybe what I’ve learned from my short tenure as ‘most famous speaker from Norwich who occasionally stays on-topic about UX but generally arses about with long words to try and look clever and simply resorts to cheap jokes to see if the audience are still awake’ might be useful to others in some shape or form, and so I was very lucky to included as part of the mentoring team. For each speaker, a mentor. A one-to-one relationship. A chance to pass on some of the things I’d learned over the years to someone who might even find it useful.

And it all turned out lovely. Alex Ng, who is currently working with me at Flow, was to benefit from my exacting principles about literal, metaphorical and unintelligible jokes, slide subversion, easter eggs, audience poking and general narrative intensity. We spent some nice times together, and it was all a bit like that bit in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where they ride around on bicycles, laughing in the sunshine to a sensory backdrop of instagrammed Jimmy Webb and teal. At least, he took my point about full-bleed images. And proceeded to smash it out of the park when it came to it. To be fair, all the speakers, including another colleague of mine, Matt Radbourne, did an excellent job for a first speaking gig, but, you know, I only cried into my free white wine following Alex’s 20 minutes, because, like , THAT’S MY BOY! (he’s 33 you know. Yes, that’s what I said.)

Untapped was a hugely enjoyable event. It encouraged those with an idea to come forward and add to it a voice. That voice was their own. New, unheard, untapped. I played a very small part in contributing to the success of the evening. Sophie and Richard incepted, inspired and, um, envisioned, or something, the evening. If I had hats, I would take them off to them, suffice to say, I think I love them. Looking forward to looking forward to the next time.

A matter of doubt in UX

Here’s a caveat: I crowdsourced this topic and so I’m just fulfilling my side of that bargain. Here’s another caveat: I’ve had a couple of drinks and so I’m probably a bit shouty. I can provide more caveats. However, despite those caveats, I can vouch for the integrity of the words I’m typing here as the truth as I see it based on the experiences I’ve had and the work I’ve done. Which is about as far as I can trust anybody who talks about UX these days.

That’s not to say that those people who I follow, converse with, pay to see, acknowledge or otherwise reference as UX professionals can’t also vouch for the words they say and the positions they adopt and the propositions they make and the work the refer to. It’s just that I’ve no way of validating it. I personally know and work with a very small number of UX professionals, notwithstanding the ones who have passed me by in other jobs, countries and lives and it’s only that very small number that I can honestly say that when they tell me they’ve done something and that they learned something and that it might be useful to me that I know it to be true.

In of itself, that’s not really much of an issue. I love a case study. I love good examples. I love it when people describe to me a learning experience by way of exposing their own fallibility. I can grok all these things. I like ‘here’s what I did’. There’s a solidarity in that openness and a learning outcome for all of us. The truth is self-evident in the telling of the story, bourne of which is a mandate to formulate recommendation and proposition.

Where I’m able to give less credence is when I’m simply directed to a method or practice, a voice or opinion, which is dependent on an assumed qualification to do so. Even if I’m taken with the proposition, without qualification, I have to question the validity if I have absolutely no idea what you’ve done, what you do, or whether you’re any good at it. I end up applying that rule of doubt whether you’re relatively new to UX or whether you’ve been to every IA summit, like, ever, because it makes no difference to me if the perception of your authority is so very institutionalised that what you say must be true. Mostly, it just means that you can say it very well, and that’s all I can honestly evaluate.

All of which is, of course, a circular argument, since there is absolutely no reason why you should afford me the courtesy that I deny others: just to take my word for it. But next time somebody tells you that ‘failing is great practice’, take a moment to challenge that statement. Why is it great practice? Why should you believe them? Next time someone tells you that you that ‘waterfall is a dead model’, take a moment to challenge that statement. How can they justify that? What have they done to support that position? Next time somebody tells you that ‘you’ve defined UX incorrectly’, well, good luck with that one.

In the end, this is really a minor issue I’ve chosen to explode into some dribbling manifesto, but the central issue I still believe to be problematic. I hear you, I rather like you, but really, I don’t know you. It’s not a matter of trust. It’s a matter of doubt.

listening post: aimee mann – calling it quits

In UX, there isn’t an everything

At the Lightning UX event in London a few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to share the stage with some very clever people talking about designing for mobile. Except that I wasn’t talking about designing for mobile. I happened to be the speaker who forgot to read the brief. So I talked, lightning style, about something completely different

I chose to speak about the hopelessness of trying to keep up with new and re-invented user experience methods and practices. As UX further develops and evolves, it can sometimes seem that every week it attempts to eat itself.

As a UX professional with a relatively long service, this can be difficult to keep up with, especially when you’re just trying to do some work. For any relative newcomer to the profession, this must be like trying to herd cats blindfolded, whilst everyone in your Twitter timeline is riding around on fixed-gear bicycles, shouting at you about which cat you should herd.

UX Method Interpolation Theory

So to help me make appropriate decisions about what to do and when, I’ve developed by own UX Method Interpolation Theory.

In short, in UX, there are too many methods and too little time. Simply choosing the right methods at the right times is a reasonable strategy. In practice, if I’m feeling left behind with new methods or practices that I’m expected to know, I tell myself this:

  • You don’t have to know everything
  • You’ll never know everything
  • And actually, as far as UX goes, there isn’t, and probably never will be, an everything


Thankfully, I don’t have to go into great detail here, because, as usual, the Lightning UX folks recorded the whole thing and, if you’re inclined, you can give up 6:45 minutes of your time to see what I had to say.

Without giving too much away, I won’t be able to give this presentation again. Which is a shame, since I hoped to see some hands go up.

Digital Creatives at the Hot Source 7×7

Last week I was kindly invited to take part in the Hot Source 7×7 event hosted at our very own Foolproof Group offices in Norwich. Hot Source is a community collective of digital creative, natives, professionals, amateurs, enthusiasts, start-ups, business owners, in fact, anybody who might have anything to do with digital in and around Norwich

The last Thursday of every month, we gather together, have a couple of drinks, and invite a couple of folks to talk about something that means a lot to them and might be of interest to the rest of us. And very nice events they are too. This time around, we thought we might change the format slightly, to get a few more people up and talking and, on a warm summer evening, get a little more informal.

The short-form talk format is pretty popular these days and allows a pretty diverse set of subjects to be covered in a short space of time. In this case, seven speakers each had seven minutes to talk about something that mattered to them. As you might expect from such a broad community, the subject matter varied greatly, which is what makes these kind of events really dynamic. Tom Wood, who helped put the schedule together, seemed to strike a good balance with the speakers and subjects. Tom Wood, who helped put the schedule together, put me on last. I can’t think why.

Diversity

So, after a few beers and some excellent charcuterie, things kicked off with a Mr George Wood, who was known rather personally to our Mr Tom Wood (Dad), who gave us an insight into the wonderful world of Minecraft, with a live demo included. Nobody wanted to follow that, but one by one, the other speakers gamely stepped up to talk about Google author profiles, the History of Advertising Trust, using the Gmaps API to create fabulous visualisations, 10 hateful things about user interfaces, and a great showcase of TV production that comes out of Norwich. And me.

Not wanting to disappoint, with me being in the ‘put him on last’ slot, I delivered what has subsequently been described to me as ‘some kind of performance theatre’, on the subject of why technology is great but is also rubbish. If I tell you it involved me talking to myself on a failing video conference for 7 minutes, then you can fill the blanks yourself. Hugely enjoyable. Questionably engaging.

In the end, the point of Hot Source is to provide a forum for like-minded people to meet, talk and discuss things that matter to us. It’s mostly digital, but that doesn’t mean we have some heavy-handed governance the precludes related topics. If it’s interesting, if it’s relevant, we want to hear about it. More importantly, gives people the chance to talk about it. If you’d like to get involved, head over to the Hot Source site for more.

Practice makes perfect UX at the UK UPA

Andy Budd - Perfect UX

I like UK UPA events. There’s something very reassuring about carrots in a bowl and speakers worth listening to. Last Thursday’s ‘Profiling the Perfect UX Practitioner’ was a particularly good event, pulling together a great list of UX practitioners to talk about UX practitioners to a room full of UX practitioners. While that sounds like it could be the point where we actually end up eating each other, it was actually the point at which we start questioning each other, which is always healthy.

There was no danger of it being a dull affair. Most of us have seen Andy Budd or Jason Mesut speak before and know that even though painful honesty borders on willful disruption it’s a dramatic tension that makes it not a little bit exciting. Put these menaces together with ‘not intentionally provided as a counterpoint but actually it works quite well that way’ Stavros Garzonis and Aline Baeck and you have a pretty good spread of disciplines, experiences and specialities that might, arguably, add up to the perfect UX practitioner, thereby rendering the whole evening redundant.

But that’s the thing. There’s not really any such thing as the perfect UX practitioner and we weren’t really there to try and determine what that is, any more than we were there to determine who has the brightest trousers, even though, as it happens, that was a really easy one to call. To summarise: it depends. With knobs on.

If there was a recurrent theme regarding the problem with defining pathways to becoming a better, more well-rounded UX practitioner, is was dichotomies. That is to say, perhaps it is the current open migration paths into UX from, say, engineering, development, psychology, for example, that are essentially dichotometrically opposed to the establishment of practitioner pathways since you have to already be pre-disposed within those disparate paradigms to an affinity with the values of user-centrednessness. Or something. I may have lost track there for a moment when I realised dichotmetrically opposed reminded me of thumbs. Anyway, there were dichotomies.

Also worthy of circular arguments was the notion of certification for UX professionals so that we all know who’s good at it. Notwithstanding the fact that none of can agree on what it is. Admirably, the German UPA chapter are looking seriously at certification, which, I’m sure, will be looked at closely to see how it might affect perception of value, ability or perfection in the long term. I asked Oliver what he thought of it. He kind of shrugged.

And it wouldn’t be a discussion about our ability to demonstrate capability without touching on, and then deep diving into, and ultimately wrestling naked in front of the fire about UX practitioner portfolios. Porfolios are good. If you think they’re good. Even though your good might not be my good. But let’s all agree they have value. In the way I value straight lines, but someone else values sketchy ones. You see. It depends. But let’s also agree that if you want an opinion on the basic thresholds of portfolio benchmarking and what, from sheer volume, might be considered the relative merits of showing deliverables vs. telling stories and demonstrating thinking, reacting, shifting, agiling, then Jason is the man to tell you to leave the wireframes at home.

Ultimately, the sum of the parts of a strong team are often what makes the whole of a perfect practioner and it’s being part of those teams that will most likely incubate the hard and soft skills required to effectively practice in the UX profession. There might be, and probably are, practitioners out there that come close to having it all, but you won’t be that person with 2 years in the industry and an impressive job title. That’s not to say that the perfect practitioner necessarily comes from the small pool of 10+ year UX veterans who like to remind you that they actually did the original user research on punched cards for jacquard looms or something, but, to be honest, longevity in the field simply affords you the benefit of experience. It’s hard to argue against it.

I enjoyed all the panellists. I enjoyed all the attendees. I even enjoyed sitting on the floor for most of the evening so I could take photos of Andy’s boots. My favourite moment? Grinning inanely while Andy ranted animatedly about how terrible the state of somethingorother was and how you should just forget about doing it when patently plenty of people in the audience were already doing it. My least favourite moment? Having to run off and leave everybody having a nice chat over fava beans and a nice chianti, because I had to rush to get a train to Norwich because we don’t all live in London you know.

Looking forward to the next one.

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