Asking the Right Answers [#44]

I have been taking part in Google Rewards for over a year now. For the most part, I complete the various surveys to feed an ongoing habit without feeling like I’m being too indulgent or wasting money. It’s a fast and easy way to make a bit of completely disposable income and, honestly, the service works well.

Broadly, the surveys I get fall into three categories: store feedback, google reviews and marketing surveys. Store feedback is usually a case of confirming that I visited a given location and then rating them out of five. It’s quick, interesting enough to see which businesses feel the service is worthwhile and lets me provide some limited feedback. I don’t really imagine that the data is all that worthwhile, but enough stores do it, some of which having done so for an entire year at this point, that they must get something from the results.

Google reviews are a little more tedious but also have a higher reward, so I quite enjoy receiving them. I’m one of those people that routinely reviews online purchases, fills out in-store questionnaires and generally says “yes” when asked if I have a minute. I totally understand why most people ignore these types of things, but I try to do them whenever I have spare time for two main reasons. The first is that I’ve worked retail, I’ve been the person with the clipboard and I am fully aware how much that role sucks. I literally spent two months, for 4-5 hours a day, wandering around Durham trying to get people interested in taking a flyer for a store I worked for, and that was difficult enough. Getting people to actually engage with you for longer than ten seconds… that sounds like hell on Earth. The second reason is that I like having a record of my opinions, which should be fairly obvious from this website (and elsewhere), and that extends out to the services I’ve used and the items I’ve purchased.

So, the first two groups are easy for me to understand and pretty common. But once every month or so I’ll get a survey from group three: marketing research. Not market research, but questioning me on the adverts that I remember having seen or my awareness of brands. I imagine most of these are Google trying to gauge how well its own advertising algorithms are, something which is totally apparent when I get a survey like the one I received this morning.

That survey was incredibly quick and began by showing me a thumbnail of a Youtube video by Philip DeFranco. The video was several years old (I could see the uploaded date on the image) and the survey wanted to know if I had watched it. Now, I’ve been subscribed to Phil since I first created a Youtube account back in 2009 and had already been watching him for over a year before that. I quite literally created my account just to be able to track which of his back catalogue of videos I had watched. As a result, I could say with pretty high certainty that I had watched the video they were showing me. I also assume, considering that Youtube is tied to my Google account, that they already knew that I had watched the video. The first question on these surveys tend to request confirmation of known information, so that made sense.

But then they did something which I don’t understand, at all. I think what they were trying to do was refine their suggested videos algorithm but the way they went about it was just weird. There were two more questions to the survey and both showed another thumbnail of one of Phil’s videos from over a year ago. Both asked me to rate, out of five, how useful these would be as suggested videos on Youtube. Now, I don’t propose to understand the exact results or answers Google are looking for here, but I can imagine that they’re hoping to confirm that, yes, someone who wants to watch a video on current affairs would like to watch more videos on current affairs. The problem, though, is that their survey is completely ignoring my own video watching history. I am subscribed to Phil’s channel; I have watched every video he’s uploaded in the past decade. I don’t need to have his old videos suggested to me because I’ve already seen them. However, none of that information has been requested by the survey, so from the perspective of the questions I’ve been asked then, yes, based on the fact I enjoyed watching the first video I would want the other two videos to be suggested.

Yesterday I was reading an A List Apart article on why asking the right questions in user testing is key to not screwing up. Perhaps because that was on my mind, this survey through me round a loop. On a personal level, completely honestly, those videos are useless suggestions to me and I would have liked to rate them 0 out of 5 (which is, irritatingly, never an option). However, I’m a huge fan of Phil and want his channel to keep growing. Saying “Yes, I watched that one video of his and never want to watch another” seems wrong. I don’t want Google to take that message away from this survey. On the other hand, I hate how my current suggested videos feed is full of videos I’ve already seen and content from channels I’m already subscribed to. It’s a personal pet peeve of the current Youtube setup because it makes that page incredibly pointless, so I really don’t want to reinforce that behaviour and say that these are good suggestions.

At this point, I’m definitely over analysing what’s going on, but you would hope a company the size of Google would understand that the way they present a survey will have differing impacts. The questions are needlessly broad and non-specific, leaving the interpretation open to the user, but the subject matter leaves me stuck trying to guess what data Google actually want from me. Do they want me to know if I like those types of videos or do they want me to ‘confirm’ that suggesting other videos from channels I’ve watched before is a good thing? Unfortunately, I don’t know which it is, which means I don’t really know what the question is, and if I don’t know that, how can I answer it?

In the end, I just stuck them both at 4/5 stars. Typing this up now I feel that was probably the wrong thing to do, but oh well. At the end of the day, Google asked what seems like a fairly innocuous question, but one which has two wildly different answers. I doubt I’m the only person getting that question but I’ll probably be an outlier in my response. Still, it’s a prime example of where the phrasing, setting and simplicity of a question can leave it horribly ambiguous. The result will likely go on to inform some form of policy at Youtube, which is a shame, because no matter what question they thought they were asking I doubt it’s the one they’re actually having answered.

Welcome to the Grid [#43]

There are a lot of new web technologies emerging at the moment which really feel like we’re entering a new era. Over the last decade, the likes of HTML5, ES6+, flex box etc. have brought the web, and the technologies on which it is built, very much into the modern day. Accessibility, responsiveness and flexibility have become standards, instead of the nice-to-have pipe dreams they were when I first built a website. Still, a lot of the new features and developments have been addressing limitations of what the web was back in the early noughties.

Right now, then, is a little different. There are still plenty of problems with how the web operates, limitations to its functionality and misuses of its resources, but with a little time and effort a website can become everything it was ever designed to be, and much more. The next round of technological implementation, then, is redesigning the way the web works. Do you need an active internet connection to be ‘online? Not any more. Want a website to do more than simply house and interlink static text? That’s getting pretty common.

Despite these huge leaps forward in terms of functionality, one element of those old, dark days has remained missing. Right when I started to learn HTML the standard approach was to mimic page setting from magazines by using <table> elements. That practice died a deserved death, but ever since the web has been slightly restricted in how it can display information in a dynamic, yet rigidly structured, manner. There have been improvements, such as display:table, flex box and semantically clearer HTML (section, article, aside etc.), but ultimately none have met the ease of application of a table layout.

Hopefully that’s about to change, thanks to CSS Grid. It’s a technology I’ve heard bits and bobs about for some time, but I’ll admit it hasn’t excited me like service workers or PWAs have. Thanks to (yet another) great article from A List Apart, I’m now firmly on board the Grid train and willing it to go faster, and faster, and faster. Honestly, I love the whole concept, but for me one of the most exciting aspects is the quick prototyping available through template-areas. For a full breakdown, read the article, but the “aha!” moment for me was seeing how this:

.cards {
        display: grid;
        grid-template-columns: 1fr 1fr 1fr;
        grid-gap: 20px;
               “a a b”
               “. d d”
               “c e e”;

Is automatically translated into this:

Layout of 5 grid blocks and 1 empty cell, showing how CSS Grid can span columns and rows, auto-fill containers and be easily spaced.
The beauty of CSS Grid.

That’s not just replicating all the functionality of the table-based layouts of yesteryear, it’s taking the best part of it, the flexible rigidity, and removing all the irritating parts, leaving just the essence. It’s wonderfully simple yet extremely powerful and has clearly been thought through to an obscene degree. The fact that even blank cells are inherently catered for, rather than having to just set a blank <div> or similar, is just fantastic. Vendor/browser support will be the next big hurdle, but by the sounds of things that’s coming along extremely well. Give it a year and CSS Grid looks like it could well be the new standard approach.

Capital Numbers

A List Apart has long been a fantastic source of knowledge and inspiration in terms of both website design and writing, but on top of these accolades every now an then it manage to completely floor me. Sometimes it’s because an explanation finally hits home after years of misunderstanding, but other times it’s simply by providing a piece of information which is simultaneously brand new and yet perfectly obvious. The type of fact which leaves you a little wide-eyed, questioning your very purpose of existence. A mind-blower, if you will.

That’s what happened today whilst reading the (brilliant) article/excerpt on Web Typography: Numerals. The article is well worth a read just for the thoughts on how the web finally makes footnotes genuinely useful (and, in doing so, guilt trips me about how these same ideas have been sat unacted upon in my head for years). However, it was a simple comment near the start that struck me like lightning:

We have at our disposal ‘uppercase’ numbers 0123456789 called lining or titling numerals, and ‘lowercase’ numerals 0123456789 called old-style or text numerals.

Wait… what?! Numbers can have cases? I read the sentence once, thought “that’s strange”, then read it again and noticed the different cases. These different glyphs are subtle but still instantly recognisable, yet I have never realised they existed before. Such a simple little thing which makes complete sense. Much like the recent viral expose of Papyrus or the infamous Fight Club burn marks, I get the feeling that text numerals are now going to be one of those things I just can’t not notice. Which is equal parts infuriating and awesome.

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.

The Anxiety Problem

Chances are that if, like me, you are interested in web design (or just design work in general) you probably already know about A List Apart, the amazing blog that has been a source of industry leading/changing ideas for well over a decade. If, somehow, you don’t then stop reading this and start reading that.

If you need a good “jumping in” point, then I cannot recommend the article Defeating Workplace Drama with Emotional Intelligence enough. I realise I’m a little late to this particular post, given that it’s over a month old, but ALA articles are definitely long form, so tend to build up in my feed reader between actual outings. Still, Brandon Gregory has hit the nail on the proverbial head in this instance. It may not be your standard A List Apart read (HTML, CSS or the ilk are barely mentioned… in fact I don’t think they are at all!) but I imagine the advice contained would benefit anyone, no matter what industry you work in. I’ll definitely be coming back to certain paragraphs for years to come.

Judging Time

Time, and specifically timing, is a very hard thing to judge and something which is largely overlooked in our day-to-day lives. That’s probably fine for common household chores, such as washing dishes or taking out the trash, but even these can benefit from a little temporal introspection. Don’t believe me? Okay, well, where I live we have two common problems: wild animals (read: gulls and foxes) and a storage heating system*. Stick your garbage bag out the night before and the gulls are likely to come raiding, but I often don’t have time to sort everything in the morning. Timing becomes important. As for the dishes, leave them for the first thing in the morning and you get scolding hot water, perfect for greasy pans; conversely, try and do them in the evening and you might not have enough water for a bath!

I’ll admit these types of examples will change for everybody and are highly subjective. So what about more measurable, universal timing issues? There is a common factoid that Thursday is the best day to upload a video to Youtube. I have no idea if this is correct, but a lot of content creators do abide by it. What about blog posts? Are there preferential days for either publishing or reading articles?

I imagine this will largely be dictated by the demographics that comprise your majority audience, but I also feel it safe to assume that most blog posts are “time-less”**; that is the “when” of reading is much less important as they are time non-specific (this will obviously change if you blog about current events, news cycles etc.). Impact, however, is often largely dictated by that self-same “when” – not the “when” of publishing, but of reading.

Take for example A List Apart, which I’ve been pushing to the bottom of my “to read” list since early December. There’s no particular reason for this decision, I’ve just felt like catching up on other RSS feeds for the past month or so, but that trend ended today. I fired up my feed-reader, opened up A List Apart and scrolled down to the oldest article: Professional Amateurs, Write What You Know (Now). The article is by Mark Llobrera and, as ever, is well worth the time to read through and absorb. It also happens to be highly pertinent, given my recent return to this here website.

Now, I’m not saying I wouldn’t have enjoyed the article in December, but it definitely would not have had the same impact. In the run up to Christmas, an article arguing that I should spend more time writing about the “mundane and obvious”, because everything was worth capturing, would probably have elicited a sage nod of the head and a mental note to revisit at a later date. If it was lucky, I may have saved it to Evernote, then likely forgotten it (possibly indefinitely). However, reading it in early February, at the start of my lunch break, having just found the time to return to blogging resulted in, well, this post. It both sparked my desire to write and gave me fresh ammo, but crucially did so at a juncture when time was available. As a result, the article has had a tangible impact and will likely stick in my mind for many months to come (as well as getting added to Evernote).

It would have been pretty much impossible for Mark to have correctly judged that timing, and I’m not claiming he should have. But it definitely strikes me that thinking about content with regards to the when of its readers is probably worth considering a lot more than people currently do. I may also be stealing the “Technology’s Betrayal” blog category… but that’s largely unrelated!


* FYI this means that our hot water/heaters do all their “heating” over night, when electricity is cheapest. Not a perfect system, but another example of optimising timing.

** Mine certainly are!