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I sometimes write nonsense about things to try and sound clever

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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

gainful

as in employment. I’ve recently started working for Tobias and Tobias in London doing lots of nice user experience work for some rather nice clients in the city and its a rather nice change from just looking for work in London doing lots of nice user experience work for rather nice clients in the city.

its a significant change from the working environment I have been used to for the last few years, in terms of office space (there is some), project management (there is some) and stakeholder relations (there are some), but the core requirements of the role are essentially the same, that is, to understand the business requirements and define the user experience that supports and encourages engagement, streamlines interaction, and drives business growth, oh yes. and gets it finished by last thursday. based on the changes we just made to the requirements. in the meeting you weren’t at.

that last bit was a joke. I was at the meeting.

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 window.open() 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.

social broadcasting

I rather like social interaction online. for many years my peers, co-workers and friends have mostly been in different timezones and an expensive phone call away, regardless of who was actually paying the bill. there’s nothing like the direct connection of, say, IM, or chat, or IRC (oops), or nearly-connected twitter, or even asynchronous email, or, at a push, facebook status (excuse the pun. actually, don’t, I put it in on purpose. its supposed to be there), to connect with people I really can’t be with in person. I can pretend to myself that because we still interact directly on a mostly 1-1 basis, that we’re still kind of friends and that we’re actually having a conversation. it works for me.

however, and I don’t usually begin a paragraph with a however, however, in this case, its appropriate, in recent months, nay, years, the increasing market for social networking technology across multiple platforms and devices has driven things into a bizarre self-fulfilling adoption-fest whereby its no longer the interaction that sustains the apparent connectedness but the dissemination and aggregation of the message that appears to matter. in others words, its no longer about what you say, its about how something else distributes it. and how someone else embeds it into their own personal social network architecture. where it festers. and dies. in a soup of loosely related social media artefacts which are abstracted from their original content types and dumped like a mahoosive bucket of unrecognisable old fruit in a shiny new bin round the back of Tescos, which coincidentally, you chose to shop at. its not interaction, its broadcasting. and now you’ve lost me.

oh, hang on, my phone’s ringing.


listening post: M83 – graveyard girl

touche touchy touchpad

I’m not entirely sure whether this is a failing on my part or a failing on their part, but since there was a failure, I’m going to blame them, but I’ve only just realised after about 4 years that there is a key on my laptop which toggles the touchpad on and off which sounds like it might be a good idea which it probably is if you know that that is indeed what it does. which I didn’t. until yesterday.

I expect that if I’d been through all the options in the documentation I would have known about this key from day one, but just to be clear, it isn’t a key which just does one thing, like, say, a mahoosive windows key next to your space bar that you keep pressing my mistake. no, this is a softhard key. not a shifted or ctrl-alted regular key, but a key magically enabled with a combination of the ‘fn’ key and F7. in other words, fn-F7. which looks like it should be the mathematical evaluation of the number of ‘f’s I used trying to figure it out, but it in fact just a combination key press that you actually can’t perform with one hand. which is why it should be difficult to do. and obvious what it does.

I should point out that this is just one of a number of function keys mapped to the F keys that do useful things, like swap displays (glyph of a monitor), adjust volume (glyph of a speaker), adjust brightness (glyph of a sun thing), suspend, resume, shut down, etc. (glyphs of Zzzs, standby buttons, etc.), but this one has the least recognisable representation of its consequent action, to the point where I just assumed it did something I would never want to do. knowing now that it might actually be useful is too late, since I’ve already somehow used it by mistake to disable a hardware component that is actually useful resulting in me reinstalling drivers, users, and very nearly the entire operating system. why not just search online for this annoyance and surely someone else will have come across it? well, this isn’t exactly the people’s choice of laptops – acer ferrari 5000 – nice as it is. the only thing you’ll find online is reviews about how nice it is, albeit with a bit of a sticky touchpad, and instructions on how to disassemble it. its just a badly designed button. and it had me fooled.

I’d love to show you exactly what this offending item looks like, but frankly, I can’t quite summon the energy to photograph it, edit it and upload it, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. suffice to say, the graphical representation of someone using a touchpad, in light blue, on the F7 key of my laptop, looks a bit like a canary on a wing mirror. I mean, I know what its supposed to be now.

walk this way

those lovely looking people with the astro-turfed terrace at archibald ingall stretton obviously understand that if you really want to find them, you probably know how to use your own map, and so they have instead provided you with the more immersive user experience of doing the walk for you, so you know what to expect. it tells me everything I need to know about a daily commute from the nearest tube station in a way that Transport for London really never can, complete with pithy social commentary on, amongst other things, the relative worth of free news (although I might have recycled).

try for youself. I rather like the journey from Tottenham Court Road.


listening post: aphex twin – flaphead

in praise of flickr. again.

245/365

I have, a number of times, errantly extolled the virtues of the flickr user experience to such an extent that I am probably some kind of fan-man. that is to say, I’ll often be asked what I consider to be a good example of user experience design, when, frankly, its sometimes easier to explain to people what I do by demonstrating what it means to a user in a practical application, rather than a more ethereal dissection of human computer interaction and the history of pointing at things with disconnected devices and why I chose orange for a headline. notwithstanding the feature creep of recent years and the freakout that was the acquisition by yahoo! which was erroneously blown up into some kind of photo-apocalypse, the flickr experience is still one which supports everything I want to do in a way that I like to do it and doesn’t ask or compel me to do things I don’t want to do in the middle of things I’m half way to accomplishing. it is still, 5 years or so after first using it, one of the very few sites I access without going via some kind of API and amazon cloud captcha interface which abstracts the operations and allows me to fiddle about and aggregate any number of similar services so that I forget what I was doing in the first place much like writing this sentence. flickr, the site, is, of course, its own presentation layer on top of its own services, and so is only one of a number of full-featured experience architectures that I might decide to opt into or somehow leverage. but, in the end, its the seamless integration of those services, the consistent, coherent application of visual design components and the logical, meaningful management of data and taxonomy that pulls everything together so neatly. and I can write little notes with smiley faces on. there can’t be anything better than that.

there are some features of flickr that I never use. galleries. favourites (much). but then, I know they’re there if I choose to opt in, but on a daily basis, they don’t interfere with my operations. this is probably because I’m not very popular. I expect that insanely popular flickr users are bombarded via notifications of additions to galleries, favourites, and invitations to groups like Sword of Damocles ur got exceelent PIKTUREs add 1 comment on a billion animated gif 600×600. but then, you can decide what to do with those notifications, and anyway, if you’re insanely popular, you probably have to deal with the popularly insane, but at least flickr will provide you with the tools to manage that effectively and efficiently, but the good folk at flickr understand scalability and the effects on user operations. at least, I think they do. I mean, with about 6000 photos a minute or something getting uploaded and each one of those objects existing as a unique entity with all the associated user operations, I’m thinking they’ve considered scale.

in the end, as far as flickr is concerned, I’m just a satisfied user. and I pay for the privilege. and I don’t often say that.

good enough for you, good enough for me

98/365

why does it take so long to decide which platform which gadgets which colours which page width which font I might want to choose when setting up a blog when I could have spent the same two weeks writing a number of entries that would probably have answered those questions in a way that might become self-evident? because I like doing that. I like fiddling with the bits. I think it makes a difference and notwithstanding the obviously hacked together html and javascript and third-party widgets and nonsense I’ll use once and throw away even though it will wreck the template I spent two days creating by hand because my blogging platform doesn’t remember what I did before, I hope you think it makes a difference too, because that’s why I did it.

well, I kind of did it because I like orange, but there is more to it than that, honestly. I mean, I’ve got asterisks. they’ve got to represent something, like the concentric yet angular growth of my brand as symbolic of the acquisition of knowledge and its application in providing solutions regardless of the problem. or that they’re nice. and I’ve already used one somewhere else so I’m stuck with it. also, I spent at least a day deciding whether to use a single or double colon in the page title since I know that a a single colon with no space is the format that will be used to concatenate the blog title and an entry title and so there’ll be some kind of consistency there but hey, I quite like the double colon thing even though it’s largely meaningless. in fact, I would have finished this entry ages ago had I not decided that I suddenly wasn’t keen on the list styling and so just made some ridiculous and undoubtedly browser-breaking tweak to the css using percentages of ems just to calm myself down.

still, if its good enough, its good enough. I’m not paying myself to do this.


listening post: supergrass – mary
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