Empathy Just Makes Sense [#12]

Their immediate need was a revamped website, but once they understood that this need paled in comparison to all of the other places they could have an impact on their customers’ lives, they began talking excitedly about how to make this vision a reality down the road.

Let Emotion Be Your Guide is a wonderful article from Hana Schank and Jana Sedivy (published on A List Apart) which has taken me far too long to actually sit down and read. It’s worth your time pretty much regardless of your own career path, but personally it reminded me of some of the little reasons I enjoy the path I’ve chosen.

Whilst websites are a core point of contact for many businesses and deserve a rigorous, reasoned implementation the reality is that they are likely only one of many such points of contact for your customer, and each is just as important as the next.

What’s more, the best practices and strategies employed in developing a good digital foothold aren’t just applicable to the web. Increasingly, the way we think about UXD online is no different to the way we should think about every aspect of our lives. Putting empathy front and centre of your decision making is not just good practice: it’s the only method that makes sense in the long term. New features, applications, websites, brochures or whatever else are only useful if they solve a real problem, and you won’t know what the real problems are unless you talk to, and empathise with, other people.

TV vs Film: The Great Debate [#10]

When I first started writing my Month in Media series it appears I neglected to give proper credit to the inspiration (at least if I did, I can’t find it any more, which is effectively the same issue). To remedy that, then, I’d like to formally recognise that it was Khoi Vinh’s series of “Movies Watched” that sparked my interest. To be clear, I wasn’t lying when I said hosting reviews was always a goal of theAdhocracy, but the monthly amalgamated format, the concept of logging my media consumption, that was really inspired by Khoi Vinh.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that I find Khoi’s monthly updates really interesting. Unlike my own endeavours, his don’t contain full reviews but are more of a personal log, with the occasional brief comment and nothing more. Still, I find it weirdly compelling to compare a strangers viewing habits to my own, so a part of me always looks forward to reading his updates.

I’ve also been continually interested in the impact of a decision Khoi made over a year ago: to focus on consuming Film over TV. He certainly manages a good monthly average, last month scoring 19 full films or almost five a week! I also find myself agreeing with the reasoning Khoi gave:

In spite of how good television has become, I still find it’s rare to find a show where every episode is a truly worthwhile chunk of time spent

That’s a fair acknowledgement, as is his follow up comments on the comparative time requirements to watching a TV show and a film. An average season consists of 22 episodes, with each episode falling somewhere between 15 and 45 minutes in length (what I call the Adventure Time to Game of Thrones scale). So it’s a fair assumption that deciding to watch a new TV show will be at least an 11 hour commitment. If it runs for multiple seasons, that number only increases and, for a singular story, that is kind of crazy, especially when there’s often little guarantee that your time will be well rewarded. A film will normally take no more than two hours, contain an entire plotline and have easily searchable and reliable vetting. By foregoing TV, people like Khoi can therefore slot in 5-6 great movies within the same time commitment as 1 potentially average, soon-to-be-cancelled TV show. With both markets increasingly bursting at the seams with new content advertised as ‘worth our time’ I can fully understand the decision to focus on film.

So I’m writing this to say that, moving forward, I’m adopting Khoi’s approach wholesale, ignoring TV shows in the coming months and aiming to binge my way through Hollywood’s finest moments, right? Well… no, not really. February’s MiM is substantially reduced compared to January and the primary reason has been TV. We ‘accidentally’ became sucked into the world of How I Met Your Mother and have watched almost nothing else since, finishing three seasons in as many weeks. We could have spent that time (a quick calculation suggests somewhere in the region of 26 hours) watching thirteen films, which does feel more respectable somehow. But, had we done so, we wouldn’t have experienced the hilarious, emotional rollercoaster that HiMYM is/was.

The day after watching a film I’m often inspired, excited, ponderous or drained. Films can and routinely do pack an emotional punch, leaving you to contemplate philosophy or provide a genuinely thrilling experience; it’s a great medium with a huge amount to offer. But I can’t remember the last film that left me feeling the way a good TV show does. The night after watching the final finale of HiMYM I struggled to think of what to do. I just wanted to know what these characters were up to and how they were doing. I’ve heard this feeling of loss, when the story is finally done, compared to watching a friend move to another country. Sure, you know there’s the possibility you might see them in the future and you can always revisit the past, but at the same time a door has closed and a spark is starting to dwindle. It’s a feeling that hits me quite often when finishing a book but rarely when watching the end credits roll on a film. Movies are too self-contained for that, they’re too focused on telling the story they have, and doing so as succinctly as possible. They’re restricted.

TV, books, video games: these are the media that have the ability to immerse you, not just for a few hours, but utterly and inescapably. For me that’s worth it. That’s worth the time commitment, worth the duds. Sure, it sucks when they end, especially when it is final, but the fact you feel that way surely validates the experience. I think it’s fair to say that you can watch a movie, but you can befriend a TV show.

Rating my Opinion [#3]

How do you determine quantitative worth for a de facto subjective experience? Is there even any point? Can you make related “values” actually relatable if those “values” are arguably arbitrary?

I’ve toyed with somehow ‘rating’ the films, books etc. that I keep track of in my Month in Media posts since I started that series. It initially appears like a logical framework to include; after all, each piece of media is just a single node in a much larger and, crucially, definable category such as “Film” or “TV”. Each month I state my opinions on a selection of these data points, but why do I bother? Collectively, reviews alone don’t allow for any insight into viewing habits or present any meaningful conclusions. I can look over the lists that I’ve effectively generated and work out whether I watch more science fiction than animation, or vice versa, but it can only offer broad strokes without any real depth.

However, the moment you start attempting to quantise reviews, which are by their nature highly personal and often adapt over time, you hit on some pretty big issues – see opening enquiries. The first hurdle is that your own thoughts and opinions can vary depending on your emotions, your current location or the setting in which the media is consumed. A decent movie, when watched with a group of good friends, can become a brilliant movie simply due to the associations that are created. The second hurdle is that, even if you can overcome external influences, you still have to apply the ratings consistently. In the basest form, this implies a need for a checklist, a system of simple requirements for a piece of media to rank within a preset bounding range. But that checklist must, therefore, be utterly fair; it cannot weight one element above another, nor arbitrarily inhibit the progression of positive or negative elements. If you were to dissect a film rating, for example, would you expect the soundtrack to receive equal weighting to the direction? What then happens when a film is considered a ‘must-watch’ because of the direction but the score is utterly laughable? This highlights the third and final issue with rating content: once something is quantised, it is able to be ranked. Now every review no longer sits independently of the others, instead they become utterly connected. It may be simple to decide that a film is a good film, but is it better than that other good film you saw last week? Should it get the same score, a higher one or a lower one? Once ranked, the collective now have an intertwined meaning, a meaning that is (circularly) only as strong as the methodology behind it. That means, once you’ve put everything in place and gone through all that effort, if at any time you realise that some element is incorrectly weighted, missing or false, the entire dataset is corrupted.

Years ago I “wrote” video game reviews for a friends website, with the aim of getting them pushed out to several big gaming forums at the time. The ambitions never paid off (I was consistently too young) but the experience was my first time attempting to fit subjective experiences within rating systems. Different websites ranked video games differently. Places like IGN used an x/10 system, Nintendo Official Magazine rated out of 100%, Ctrl+Alt+Del based worth on five stars. My reviews tried to fit all these systems (and more) by heavily compartmentalising my scoring system. The soundtrack was x/5, the animation x/10, the story x/10 and so on until I had a final score, hopefully weighted in a balanced manner, resulting in a total that was divided into parts, each of which I could then convert into one part of a star, percentage point etc. The whole system took me days to come up with and refine so, when it was ‘done’, I wanted to test it. I wrote a couple of reviews of popular games at the time (Twilight Princess is the only one I can remember) and used my checklist to score them. I converted the scores into the various ratings systems and then compared my given rank with that of the actual website. Needless to say, most were quite different but I was expecting that. My opinion would not necessarily gel with the other reviewers. What I was surprised by was how differently my review scores ranked within each organisations charts. Sometimes, a game was right up near the top of the pile on one website but in the middle somewhere else. Between services, a single review score could dramatically alter the perceived worth of a game from being a GOTY contender to an average, barely notable experience. Internally, my reviews were consistent (I made sure of that) but when placed in the context of another persons ranking system… they fell apart.

In other words, I’ve overthought this to an extreme level and been burnt in the past, so when it came to writing my MiMs I just didn’t bother. But now it’s the end of the year and I would like a way to do a “Year in Review” type set of articles. I need to be able to rank the films, books etc. I’ve consumed in 2016 but I don’t want to do it from memory; that adds a secondary level of subjectivity to proceedings. No, I want to see what I thought of them when I wrote their reviews, not what I think of them now that months have been and gone. So I’m going to give some thought to a simple, yet fair, set of criteria that I can use to quantise my enjoyment of a product. I’ll begin with movies and TV only, as books are too different a beast to be mixed in. I’m already keeping track of my initial gut reaction over on Trakt for the films I’ve watched so far in January. Hopefully I can use that to backfill once I’ve sussed a system I’m content with. In the meantime, I guess its time to start trying out some systems!

Cards Against Clarity

The concept of “card based” web design has been around for at least three years now. So why is it that the following quote from Khoi Vinh, written back in 2014, still appears to be a fundamental truth:

it hasn’t gotten much easier to explain to the uninitiated what, exactly, a card is.

Because here’s the thing: as much as I love reading about web design, I am still very much a member of the “uninitiated”. I can tell because I still have absolutely no idea what a “card” is.

I realised this (yet again) thanks to a recent article that cropped up in my RSS feed. I’ve been singing their praises recently, so hopefully Zurb won’t mind too much if I point to 5 Common Mistakes Designers Make When Using Cards in Design as a prime example of 1 Common Mistake Web Designers Make When Talking about Cards, chiefly, that what a card is fails to be defined anywhere.

Perhaps this whole situation is just down to me. Maybe I’ve fallen so far behind web trends that my outdated ways of attempting to understand “cards” are just not up-to-scratch. But, frankly, there doesn’t seem to be much help out there.

Early articles on using “cards” in design tend to paint a picture of API driven, cross-platform data sharing. A sort of standardised method of pushing/pulling content from/to various web apps; an ecosystem of information, if you will. That all sounds interesting and pretty great, yet presents a concept that is simultaneously vague and highly technical, creating a perfect mixture for people to be excited about yet confused over.

Yet “cards” are also used to describe certain design styles. In that linked Awwwards article a number of examples of “good card-based web design” are cited. Some, such as Dribbble and Pinterest, appear to be examples of the information ecosystem mentioned above. But then you have websites like White Frontier, which whilst being a great example of web design do not appear to have any form of content interaction or applicable data extraction methods. Yet these designs are, apparently, just as “card based” in their makeup.

As far as I can tell from Googling around the subject, “cards” are just rectangular content areas situated on a website. They might pull in information from a third party, they might just be a stock photo and a strapline. The article I initially quoted comes to a similar conclusion, that cards either fit into the “design” or “third-party” camps, which doesn’t seem particularly useful to me. If they’re just a design style then, really, they’re just a particular way of presenting content; a way which, ultimately, seems pretty much identical to how most people have always done it. If they’re only to be used when pulling third-party data then we need a tighter definition, because I don’t feel anyone would be happy suggesting iframes are all cards.

Currently, their only unifying factors appear to include being responsive, rectangular and online. So perhaps that’s all there actually is to them, which would be rather neat. If that is the case, then I can happily claim to have been making card-based websites since 2007, putting my well ahead of the trend!

Doth the Bell Toll for Zurb?

Today’s lunch started no differently to any other. Grab some food, open Internet Explorer (I know, it’s not by choice…) and fire up theOldReader to chip away at the ever mounting pile in my inbox. I dipped into the Oatmeal and realised I have, once again, missed a Kickstarter for a product that I genuinely want. Read some interesting thoughts from Adactio, Dan Mall and UNSTOPPABLE ROBOT NINJA (now, sadly it seems, going by the far less awe inspiring Ethan Marcotte). And then I looked at my inbox and wondered if it was about time that I started removing some of the feeds which I’m no longer excited to read. Feeds like the one Zurb publishes.

Although I’ve been subscribed to Zurb’s RSS for years now (possibly a decade) I struggle to think of a single article over the past six months that made me sit up and think: aha! Updates have been flowing as routinely as ever, but mostly they have focused on their internal business. Posts about new product updates or team members have been, seemingly, the core output for quite some time and whilst these do occasionally feature interesting anecdotes or clever imagery, ultimately they don’t feel particularly relevant. So then, I thought, today I will catch up on what I haven’t read and if nothing jumps out it’s bye-bye Zurb.

I am, admittedly, a little behind on Zurb’s feed so it was back to mid-October for a post titled The End of the Black Turtleneck, featuring a prominent image of Steve Jobs. As someone who laments the grasp Apple has on most of the industries I admire, a review of their glorious leader’s preferential attire didn’t exactly fill me with excitement. However, the old adages are true: you really shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

Far from being a humorous or anecdote laden parade of fanboyism or irrelevant commentary on how Zurb have learnt to design the ‘Jobsian Way’ (which is hopefully something I just made up, though I can believe somewhere out there a design agency has it engraved into the ceiling…), The End of the Black Turtleneck is filled with genuinely interesting incite and actually takes several shots across Apple’s bow. In other words: things just got interesting!

I’m not going to say too much more on that article or the subsequent follow ups that were just as enjoyable and arguably more useful, except to highly recommend you go and read them yourself. If you’re in any way interested in the struggles that the design industry faces or even just the issues inherent with casting false messiahs or getting engrained in past zeitgeists, they’re definitely worth a read. I can’t say everything I’ve caught up on so far has been riveting, vital content but The End of the Black Turtleneck and The Perversion of Beautiful Design, both written by Zurb’s head honcho Bryan Zmijewski, are some of the most intriguing and thought provoking blogs I’ve read in a while. They’re clear, well written and have valid criticisms at their core. Most importantly, they gel well with my own belief that design should be as much about aesthetics as it is functionality; that function = form and vice versa, with neither greater than the other.

Plus, I learnt that the term ‘pixel’ was coined to describe the picture elements of videos shot by probes around the Moon and Mars. That titbit came from The Mighty Pixel, which is also well worth a read. I guess there was a reason to stay subscribed to Zurb’s feed* after all. In fact, it looks likely that there might be several.


* I wanted to link directly to Zurb’s RSS feed here but I can’t seem to find it anywhere. It clearly still works, but they obviously don’t feel it’s a feature any visitors want. So, I guess, there’s at least one aspect of Zurb that I disagree with. Either that or I’m a moron…

The Great iWall

Well that’s that then. The great legal firewall has descended and the BBC’s iPlayer service is now firmly on the other side. As of today, you can no longer watch catch-up TV for free in the UK; instead, you need to have a TV license.

On the one hand I feel this is the correct direction for the BBC to be heading in. Allowing free use of the iPlayer service has always struck me as just a little bit silly. Sure, programs disappear from it with irritating regularity/punctuality, but ultimately if you can just watch everything 24 hours later and save £150, that’s a no-brainer.

On the flipside, however, I am annoyed that the switch has come with no middle ground. Basically, iPlayer is now worth £150 a year. Yesterday, it was worth a staggering £0. There doesn’t appear to be much rhyme or reason to this change, other than a possible “we screwed up, sorry”. Perhaps this is just a result of TV having evolved to the point where “live” is no longer a premium, but rather a hindrance. Personally I’m well aware that my own preference is to watch a series Netflix-style, in one extended sitting, rather than wait week in and week out. Still, I would have infinitely preferred a “web only” price (say £80?) to purely access iPlayer. Better yet, let the Beeb stick adverts before/after iPlayer content if you don’t have a license (like that’ll ever happen…).

Despite these flaws, the part I actually find the most irritating is how the BBC will determine if you are legally watching or not: a pop up confirmation box. That’s right, no logins, passwords, pin codes or accounts of any kind. Rather than using this opportunity to modernise their entire system and tie a TV license to an individual, rather than a property, we’ll be left with the same old, antiquated mess we had anyway. How they even vaguely hope to police this honour system is beyond me, though I imagine they will try, which is even more worrying.

I may never have been kept awake at night stressing about being falsely accused of watching live TV, but it has directly impacted my life in subtle ways. TVs, laptops, media players I buy can not, in any way, inherently s receive/play live TV; any ‘free’ setup boxes have gone straight to the nearest charity shop so that I can show I physically can’t break those laws. Now I’m stuck in a world where I can never prove that I haven’t been watching BBC programs.

Personally, I doubt I’m at much risk, but others face more serious threats. WiFi sharing has just become a lot more dubious, for one, and although I would never advocate leaving an open access router to your personal web connection I still know plenty of family friends who do so. Living in a block of flats I’m also worried about the potential interlinking of powerline tech (probably without cause).

As someone who sees £150 just too steep a price to watch Doctor Who, QI, HIGNFY and maybe 1 more series a year (The Night Manager?), I won’t be jumping at this new, expensive, identical iPlayer service. Maybe if they add some extra features or make some of the BBC’s back catalogue available on demand I’ll think again. Only time will tell.

It’s Been A While; Plus Thoughts on Pluses

So… it’s been a while.

It’s been a while since I last posted an article. Part of that has been due to a month of incredible busyness where even the planned “down time” became frantic research time for car insurance, holiday planning, present purchasing etc. The rest has been Pokémon Go!, which has eaten free time like nothing else in recent history.

It’s been a while since I reviewed a movie. Sort of. The reality is, I’ve actually managed to keep on top of those over the last week or so, but I have a couple annoyingly outstanding from a time BPg (Before Pokémon Go!) and I’m not 100% happy with the current state of some of the others. July’s MiM is coming, with some interesting new ‘features’, but it may be a week or so late.

It’s been a while since I spent any time working on this website. Again, in a time BPg (historians will catch on, I’m sure of it) I was getting close to making some pretty big, radical changes to the backend here. They hit a slight snag which morphed into a major roadblock simply because I still haven’t really sat down to mull it over. Still, plans are slowly creeping forward!

It’s been a while since I did any photo editing. Despite weekend after weekend of major events in the past month, which have produced hundreds of photos I’m genuinely proud of, I haven’t posted to Flickr in coughmumblemumble… I’m not proud of that, but again, plans may finally be moving forward.

It’s been a while since I saw something truly exemplary online. There have been some great videos and some new passions, but nothing that’s made me sit up and go: yes! I agree! Let’s think about/act on that right now! Luckily, this waiting period has actually ended thanks to the ever inspiring Vlogbrothers, John and Hank Green. I don’t want to go too deep into my thoughts right now because, well, this post has ballooned into something else which I quite like, but lets just say they’ve struck a nerve.

In a handful of recent Youtube videos, they both touched upon a worrying trend online, specifically that angry voices, ranting and outrage are becoming increasingly prevalent. In some ways, that’s totally okay, but the ubiquity and degree of rage is getting out of control. Between the two videos they discussed why anger leads to poor conversations, why it builds so much traction online, why that may provoke certain elements to create and foster this emotion above others and, most importantly, presented one method for potentially combating this trend. In terms of the “whys”, rather than regurgitate their words I’d urge you to just watch the videos. If the virality of anger is something that interests you, I’d also thoroughly recommend this analysis by CGPGrey.

What really made me sit up and take note, though, was their suggestion to combat saltiness and flame wars on Youtube: “+” comments. Because Youtube ranks comments based on the number of Likes and Comments they get, but comments are weighted higher than likes, angry/flamebait comments tend to rise to the top, causing a circle jerk of ever increasing rage. Hank Green, instead, suggested that people should leave a comment with a simple “+” symbol on any comments they felt worthy of praise, discussion or both. In doing so, they’ve hacked their own Youtube comments section into one where bile and trolling isn’t rewarded and genuine discussion/ideas are. It’s by no means perfect, but I thoroughly agree with both brothers when they say that it is as much the community’s job to police themselves and maintain order as it is the platform’s.

Personally, I’m a big fan of “+” comments. It may be that Youtube eventually begins to remove them or negate their importance, but in the meantime they seem to be a power for good. In particular, I feel they may be much more effective than reporting negative/trolling/abusive comments. I’m a firm believer that a carrot will be more likely to provoke change than a stick (plus, over reliance on the stick reduces it’s power/thorniness).

Design Tool Survey 2016

For the second year running, Khoi Vinh of subtraction.com is asking for designers/developers to fill out a survey detailing what tools they use in their day-to-day workflow. I’m probably not the true, intended participant, as it would be hard to argue that I am actively developing anything at the moment (dabbling here aside), but I’ve followed the process and outcome of the 2015 survey with interest and wanted to get a more hands-on feel for it this time around.

If you are at all interested, I’d definitely recommend it and you can do so here. Personally, I was a little disappointed by the lack of scope. The results of last year’s input were both insightful and very well presented, but now I’ve actually seen how those results were garnered I feel they’re certainly a little biased.

My main issue was the lack of personal detail requested. To be clear, the survey absolutely does not require email addresses, personal names, locations (outside of country) etc. and, correctly, refrains from these clear breaches of privacy. However, I would have though that determining the OS or main software environment people use would be fairly crucial. Similarly, asking what software you use right now is great, but I’d personally love to see what people want to use as well.

I’m a prime example of the warped outcome you can get without these details (if you ignore the fact that I’m barely an example, that is). My answers will likely group me in the box of “outdated dinosaur”; someone who is using the same tools now that they were a decade ago. Though this is largely the case (iPad aside), the reality, however, is that this isn’t my choice. I choose to use Windows as my core OS; I would do even if I was still actively freelancing as my main income source. But that means I can’t choose to move away from Adobe – at all. Would I preferentially wireframe in Sketch? Absolutely! But that isn’t an option because Sketch, like the vast majority of tools being surveyed, isn’t available to the vast majority of the world.

The gap between innovation and accessibility in the design world is becoming truly enormous, especially now even the iPad is undergoing large scale price hikes. Unfortunately, I don’t feel it will be possible for Subtraction’s survey to adequately reflect that issue, which I feel is a missed opportunity. Personally, I’d love to see how much of an impact this gulf is having in the West – it scares me to think how negatively impactful it may be elsewhere in the world!

Who Watches the Users?

How do you decide which use cases you should support and which you shouldn’t? This question has been hovering in the back of my mind for quite a while now, because it seems to be increasingly forgotten. When apps or websites are launched, they tend to have a specific goal in mind, a solution to a problem the developers have identified. But does this take centre stage during a redesign? What if your users believe you’re providing a different solution to the one you had intended?

These are very real problems and I don’t think tech firms are treating them with, well, any care at all. Facebook’s constant redesigns have largely worked but I also find myself looking for ways to refine what appears on my wall. Adverts I can manage, but scrolling through an entire page of content about people I’ve never heard of (friends-of-friends and liked activity) is boring, and boredom means my time on the service declines. Facebook appears to have forgotten its core goal: to connect you to your friends and make communication simple. Now it just wants to connect you, period, which ultimately just results in a lot of noise.

Similarly, Youtube have just redesigned their smart TV app. I like the redesign, but Subscriptions are now hidden behind a menu rather than being on the home screen. Youtube may think that Search or Recommendations are more important, but that’s not how I use their service. Hiding the content I want behind two menus (i.e. two clicks away) is bad practice on a PC, but ultimately manageable. On a smart TV, with clunky controls and latency issues, every click counts. A barrier has been placed in between me and what I want to do. Far from solving my problem, Youtube have just created another one.

On the flipside, Instagram recently implemented the ability to control multiple accounts from within their app. When Instagram first launched it enabled you to take a photograph and share it with your friends; over time though, it has become a portfolio platform that people run businesses from. The inclusion of account switching confirms that Instagram are actually listening to their users and, crucially, how those users are actually using the service. They may even end up enticing some of those business users to setup secondary, personal accounts as a result, furthering their initial concept. They’ve managed to branch out their service to solve not just one, but two problems, simultaneously.

And yet… despite this positive step, searching your own photos on Instagram is practically impossible. I can’t be the only one wanting this functionality (though I imagine my own personal use case is a little… unusual) because an entire industry has evolved to fit this niche. Yet Instagram themselves aren’t listening. There is a disconnect here between how I want to use the service and the way the developers think the service is used. Right now, I’m willing to put up with that and hope for a better future. But given time, as with Facebook, doubts will begin to gnaw. And unlike Facebook, I have no intimate connection with Instagram; cutting that cord would be fairly painless.