28 September 2011
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
- Betagov blues.. « Digital by Default Outside of Hercules House ‘digital by default’ seems a long, long way away and requires making compromises in order just to get some momentum. Small wins are achievable (and you can bet we celebrate each one!) but getting anything larger out of the door requires considerable patience and fortitude.
- How to be good at work | Stephen Hale Personally, I am much better at my job because of social tools. I’m better informed, often helped by others, better connected, more grateful, and more ready to share my own thoughts than I would be without tools like Yammer, Twitter and blogs.
- It’s the end of the web as we know it « Adrian Short The promise of the open web looks increasingly uncertain. The technology will continue to exist and improve. It looks like you’ll be able to run your own web server on your own domain for the foreseeable future. But all the things that matter will be controlled and owned by a very small number of Big Web companies. Your identity will be your accounts at Facebook, Google and Twitter, not the domain name you own. You don’t pay Big Web a single penny so it can take away your identity and all your data at any time. The things you can say and do that are likely to be seen and used by any significant number of people will be the things that Facebook, Google and Twitter are happy for you to say and do. You can do what you like on your own website but you’ll probably be shouting into the void.
- Nik Cubrilovic Blog – Logging out of Facebook is not enough Privacy today feels like what security did 10-15 years ago – there is an awareness of the issues steadily building and blog posts from prominent technologists is helping to steamroll public consciousness. The risks around privacy today are just as serious as security leaks were then – except that there is an order of magnitude more users online and a lot more private data being shared on the web.
- Prototyping as an ethos | Brian Hoadley So if we take our responsibility seriously, why don’t our clients? Why do they so often try to cut corners, cut out research and prototyping, shudder at the idea of iteration (which will equal cost now but provide potential benefit later), and railroad us down an agile path that promises iteration, but so often delivers linear, scaled-back development with no opportunity to evolve already built functionality?Prototyping and testing gives you a real opportunity to test, iterate and re-test. It allows teams to incorporate learnings (other than their own) so that the end results more closely resemble the type of result that users might actually find useful.
- Schneier on Security: Complex Electronic Banking Fraud in Malaysia The criminals use a fake card to get a new cell phone SIM, which they then use to authenticate a fraudulent bank transfer made with stolen credentials.
- Schneier on Security: Complex Electronic Banking Fraud in Malaysia [comment] One problem with multi-channel authentication is that the owners/maintainers of the individual channels may be unaware of the consequences to the end-user of their security weaknesses.
- Should you launch at a conference? – Joel on Software We probably could have brought it to market after three months. That would have been ever so lean. There was a strong temptation just to dump it on the world super-early and spend the next year iterating and improving.We didn’t do that. We worked for nine months, and then launched. I couldn’t stop thinking that you never have a second chance to make a first impression. We got 131,000 eyeballs on 9-month-old Trello when we launched, and it was AWESOME, so 22% of them signed up. If we had launched 3-month-old Trello, it would have been NOT SO AWESOME. Maybe even MEH. I don’t want 131,000 eyeballs on MEH.
- A Cohesive & Unified Identity for British Government — Paul Robert Lloyd If we want to talk about reducing bureaucracy, and simplifying government, then surely we need to think abouthow it can be representedwithone singlecommon identity rather than a multitude of different logos.
- Older freemium app users fork over cash, younger users spend time — Tech News and Analysis Younger users spend more time in freemium apps but don’t plunk down as much money while older users are the opposite, less free with their time but more likely to open up their wallets.
27 September 2011
I hereby declare, “arguments not aphorisms” to be my new aphorism (not argument).
19 September 2011
In the continuing fight for the greater availability of public information, it may seem churlish to observe that sometimes what’s wanted is not more information, but less.
The picture above shows a typical display on a Countdown sign at a London bus stop. This particular stop has buses from two routes. At a quick glance, you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s going to be a long wait for a 2, while three 88s roll past ahead of it. Actually, the sign shows no such thing: the bottom three lines cycle through all the buses known to the system, so the second, third and fourth aren’t showing. Nor indeed are the eighth and ninth, which at that moment were 20 and 23 minutes away respectively. But if you want to know when the next 2 is due, you will have to wait for the sign to cycle round.
I would be prepared to lay considerable odds that there is not a single person standing at that bus stop who has the slightest interest in the fact that a 2 will be along in 16 minutes, still less (if that were possible) that there will be another one in 20 minutes. What they care about is that the next one is three minutes away, and right now the sign isn’t telling them that. In extreme cases, there are so many buses stacked up in the queue that they come and go faster than the display can keep up with them – the screenshot on the right (from James Darling’s minimalist site) is from the bus stop with the most extreme case of that problem I have come across.
There are no imaginable circumstances when it would be useful to know that that the sixth bus to Marylebone is coming in 26 minutes, when you are already standing at the bus stop. But there is potentially much greater value in that information when you are not at the bus stop at all. So for Countdown at bus stops, perhaps the solution is simply to show less. The first and second bus due for each route served by the stop might do it (though capping by either time or an arbitrary number of buses shown wouldn’t).
But the moment you are not at a bus stop, the ideal solution changes radically, for two reasons. The first is that the information is now informing a different decision: whether now is a good time to be going to the bus stop in the first place, with opportunities for trade offs which exist only because the information has been liberated from the bus stop. The second is that the small screen in my pocket can comfortably show me the next twenty buses; the much bigger screen attached to the bus stop struggles as soon as there are more than four.
The point of this is one which at one level should be trivially self-evident: what counts as good information depends on the question you want to answer or the problem you want to solve, and more information may not be better information. But since there are many different questions and problems, it would be folly to think that there is a single best way of selecting and presenting the information. Part of the power of open data is that it creates the possibility for highly specialised solutions – as Adrian Short has both elegantly argued and practically demonstrated. James Darling’s account of why he built his version and what he and others have done with it is also well worth reading.
One of the comments to that post links to a more radical approach still: stop making it about the buses (tubes, trains…) at all, and turn it round to be about the passenger, in a form of extreme hyperlocalism:
As the about page says, if you live exactly 6 minutes from Sunset Tunnel East Portal, 8 minutes from Duboce and Church, and 10 minutes from Church Station you may find it useful too.
But enough. I have a bus to catch.
I had hesitated to write this post at all – there is only so much bus stop nerdery any self-respecting blog should contain, and I am already well over quota for this year. But I took heart from Paul Annett’s meticulous deconstruction of a bus stop indicator at Heathrow, so here it is.
14 September 2011
When the data seem to point to an unexpected finding, always consider the possibility that the problem is a feature of the data, rather than a feature of the world …
When I discover something surprising in data, the most common explanation is that I made a mistake.
8 September 2011
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
- My speech to the IAAC | Ben Hammersley’s Dangerous Precedent In the time of revolution, and believe me this is a revolution – easily on a par with the renaissance, or the Enlightenment – the translator has a very important role to play. The communicator, the person who makes the facts palatable to all sides, is the only conduit through which real change can be made.
- Nick Bradbury: Privacy is Important Today’s software developers need to look at privacy the same way they’ve learned to look at security: it’s not an add-on or a feature that customers have to turn on, it’s something built-in that shouldn’t be turned off.
- Seth’s Blog: The obligation of the adjustable displayThe Catch 22 of engineering feedback: “The only person smart enough to understand this warning doesn’t need it.” That’s over, I’m afraid. You have unlimited paper and a pen with plenty of ink. Be clear, enunciate and tell us what to do, please.
- FixMyTransport emphasises flaws of government IT | Guardian Government Computing | Guardian Professional What makes FixMyTransport different to some of government’s sizeable IT failures is that it focuses on the user and what they want from a site, rather than what it can give them.
- UX and the Art of Digital Appropriation | Brian Hoadley User experience is pervasive. It is ubiquitous. Companies and agencies need to step back and realise that the concept of user experience will mean change in the way their businesses operate. It’s too big to be owned by any one team, shoved down any one silo. It is too fundamentally important to leave to any one concept, methodology or team. To understand user experience is to create a fundamentally open and collaborative environment with a healthy exchange between and amongst users, businesses, agencies.
- Data Won’t Solve Your Problems Fewer and fewer problems these days are technical. We have the data, and we even have the power to slice-and-dice it a million different ways. Never before have we been able to accumulate, manage, and analyze data to a greater depth than we can today. Here’s the problem: we don’t know what questions to ask of our data, nor what to do when he get an answer.
- Financing efficiency | Blog Government needs to realise that more risk transfer doesn’t lead to better risk management. There are a variety of types of risk involved in each project. Government’s aim should be to transfer only those risks that it is within contractors’ powers to mitigate through innovation and efficient delivery.
- Why I’m not on Google Plus – Charlie’s Diary Google are wrong about the root cause of online trolling and other forms of sociopathic behaviour. It’s nothing to do with anonymity. Rather, it’s to do with the evanescence of online identity. People who have long term online identities (regardless of whether they’re pseudonymous or not) tend to protect their reputations. Trolls, in contrast, use throw-away identities because it’s not a real identity to them: it’s a sock puppet they wave in the face of their victim to torment them. Forcing people to use their real name online won’t magically induce civility: the trolls don’t care. Identity, to them, is something that exists in the room with the big blue ceiling, away from the keyboard. Stuff in the glowing screen is imaginary and of no consequence.
- The Difference Between UI and UX | Design Shack At the end of the day, that is all we get to leave the user with: a memory. As we all know, human memory is astounding but it’s imperfect. Every detail contributes to the ingredients of a good user experience, but when it all comes down to it, the user will remember products in somewhat skewed way. UX contains a much bigger picture than UI does but it still relies on the smallest details to drive it. This understanding is the most powerful asset anyone can have in product development.
- Why It’s Good that the Internet Is Changing Our Brains – Technology – GOOD We all want to believe that as humans, we control our tools, not the other way around. Clark would argue the exact opposite is true, and for the better. After all, how can we say our brains are all we need to be our “real selves” when we have so much stored and invested in our outside technologies? Maybe we’re not losing our “selfhood” at all, but creating mega-selves. Perhaps we should be thinking of our presence on the internet, our phones, and our hard drives as equally important parts of us—really clever parts who can tell jokes in 140 characters or less.
8 September 2011
This is the futurist’s dilemma: Any believable prediction will be wrong. Any correct prediction will be unbelievable. Either way, a futurist can’t win. He is either dismissed or wrong.
6 September 2011
My dishwasher has a bit of whatever the white goods equivalent is of bling. It has a display panel on the front conveying mostly irrelevant information fairly inefficiently. I assume it is intended to communicate whizzy modernity; it certainly doesn’t communicate much useful information. It slowly cycles through three screens, only one of which tells me when it will finish, which is the only thing I want to know. But the screen is there, glowing with potential.
The actual controls are tucked away inside the door. They are simple enough and include another display, but one which is much more limited, able to show three crude characters. At the moment it is showing ‘E-24′. This is clearly not good, since the dishwasher has stopped mid-cycle with a puddle of dirty water at the bottom But in what way it is not good, I am none the wiser.
Meanwhile, the big screen at the front is showing precisely nothing. It could so easily give me an E-24 related message: the first level translation when I found it took four words, the second level explanation of what to do about it took 75 more to give far more detail than I actually needed. Either would be well within the capabilities of the screen, neither is attempted.
No doubt the deep significance of E-24 is explained in the manual, but that’s just an assumption, since the manual is not there to check. So the obvious answer is to google for a solution. I know the manufacturer, I know the error, but it occurs to me that the model number might be relevant too. There is a helpful sticker giving me a phone number to ring, but no sign of a model number (and what’s the betting on the first question they would ask me if I were to ring the number?). Too bad, time is running short, I am supposed to be somewhere else. And google comes through without it: a simple tweak, turn off, turn on, off it happily goes.
The point of all this is the balance between the normal and the abnormal. Someone has put a lot of thought into the information this machine gives out when it is in a normal state. That’s the state it is in almost all the time, so at first sight, that’s a sensible thing to do. I don’t know how often across the universe of dishwashers E-24 comes up, maybe it’s just once in a month of Sundays. But precisely because it is rare and unexpected, that’s when I need help understanding what it means and what I should do.
It’s terribly easy in designing any service to put disproportionate weight on the core process which lead to successful outcomes. Newly fashionable approaches, such as agile, can be understood as encouraging that, with an emphasis on delivering highest value first. The catch, of course, is that value is not necessarily the same as volume, but the two can easily be elided.
Of course it’s right to make sure that the core experience works well: it’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient. Developing the first, second and nth level support processes always seem to lag behind the process which might need supporting, rather than being seen as an intrinsic part of them. So edge conditions can be overlooked, but more subtly to the extent they are developed, they more easily fall into a more technocratic or expert user approach.
In this respect, dishwashers are like staircases:
When specialised users are in a position to specify a service to meet their needs, that is what they will do, even if they are a small minority of the overall user base.
I am sure that dishwasher repair people the length and breadth of the country can recite error codes in their sleep: E-24 is all they need to know. But they are a tiny minority of the people affected. Or as Brian Hoadley has put it in a recent blog post:
No Virginia… you are NOT the user. The user is the user. Someday, you may have the opportunity to be a user on a project – where you are not doing the design. But until that day, please, everyone involved in projects, work harder to get to know who your users are, and please, do involve them in the process. It can be really quite rewarding!
The screen on the front of my dishwasher remained resolutely blank. But if you too need help with E-24, the answer is out there.
3 September 2011
Some evenings on my way home from work, I play a small private game of chicken. Now I have played it for the last time.
If there are too many people at the bus stop – and no, I don’t know how many makes too many – that’s a sign that the gap between buses is longer than it should be. That means that when the bus does come, it will be more crowded than it should be. So far, so straightforward. But it also may well mean that there is a second bus not far behind the first. That’s reasonably likely partly because the second bus may be on time even if the first one isn’t, but partly because it is the iron law of buses that once one is delayed and fills up, the one behind will start to catch up.
So as the first bus arrives, I have a choice. I can get on the first bus with complete certainty, but less comfort, or I can wait for a possible second which may or may not be close behind and may or may not be relatively empty. Most people don’t make that choice: with rare exceptions, everybody else crowds on to the first bus. On good days, the second bus comes round the corner when the first bus has barely moved away from the stop. On bad days, there is a long wait for a bus which is eventually just as crowded as the first.
It’s a gamble, but I have learned to be canny with the odds, and mostly I win the game. Mostly.
The game only exists because of an information deficit. TfL knows where all its buses are, but the rest of us can only guess, except at the fairly small proportion of stops which have dot matrix indicators. The value of making that information more widely available has been self-evident for years. Just over two years ago, a team at Young Rewired State calling themselves TfHell won the Public Strategist award for “the service which most obviously ought to exist, for which there is no good reason that it does not exist and which now just needs to happen”.
But alas it did not just happen – until now.
I played my game for the last time this evening. Or rather today the game played me: the first bus was so full that it went straight past without stopping, so I didn’t get to choose. But within a couple of minutes of finding a seat on the second bus I found that the world had changed.
The effects should be interesting. Right now, it may not do much more than give me an edge in my decision making. If it were to get widely used, though, it should in theory produce an extraordinary feedback loop. If enough people wait for the second bus, knowing it is only just behind, rather than scrambling to get on the first, buses will get more regular and less crowded. A whole of host of individuals doing nothing other than making self-interested decisions based on a small but critical piece of information they don’t currently have, would improve the efficiency of the bus network.
The seminal work of observations of commuter behaviour, Notes from the Overground, is sadly very long out of print. Its author distinguished goats who seize and act on information to make their journey easier from sheep who do not. It’s a reasonable bet that even with better information, most people will still crowd on to the first bus (that is, after all, what happens now with tube trains, with the information available to everyone). That means that buses will continue to bunch up. But I will know that there is a second one, and that’s the one I will be on.
The web page says firmly that this is a test service – and indeed as a I write it is not working. Perhaps these last few hours have been all that we are to get for a while, and I will have to keep playing the game a while longer. In any case, there needs to be less to it than there is: web pages designed for full screen browsers are a great way of consuming many kinds of content, but waiting times at bus stops is not one of them.
The first version of this has come much later than it should have done. Let’s hope the second is not very far behind.
Update – 7 September
I have since discovered that there are three versions:
Desktop – with interactive maps
Text/Accessible – with static maps
Mobile – which is pure text with no maps.
Slightly confusingly, the desktop version has links to what it calls a text version, but is actually the sub-domain called ‘accessible’. The version which is actually text-based is not linked from either of the other two. Slightly more confusingly, although all three versions allow you to record a set of ‘My Stops’ for quick reference, the cookies which hold the data are held separately in the three sub-domains and so are invisible to each other (at least I think that is what’s going on; mine keep disappearing, even though I have given them an exemption from my standard cookie setting of eviscerate).
There is a page on the TfL site which explains a bit about the project – and it’s worth saying that this appears to be an unintentionally public beta at the moment, which deserves some latitude.
19 August 2011
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
- USENIX 2011 Keynote: Network Security in the Medium Term, 2061-2561 AD – Charlie’s Diary It’s nearly impossible to underestimate the political significance of information security on the internet of the future. Rather than our credentials and secrets being at risk – our credit card accounts and access to our email – our actual memories and sense of self may be vulnerable to tampering by a sufficiently deft attacker. From being an afterthought or a luxury – relevant only to the tiny fraction of people with accounts on time-sharing systems in the 1970s – security is pushed down the pyramid of needs until it’s important to all of us. Because it’s no longer about our property, physical or intellectual, or about authentication: it’s about our actual identity as physical human beings.
- The Ministry of Lorem | Helpful Technology So I knocked up Ministry of Lorem. It grabs the latest press releases from about a dozen central government departments who publish usable RSS feeds, cleans up the first line a bit, randomises the order, and generates as many paragraphs of text as you need. Oddly mesmerising stuff:
- A tale of two networks | Curiouscatherine’s Blog The problem here is so obviously not the technology –to say so is to take a technological determinist view of the world that ignores the fact that we have been on a path to a more networked society every since the telegraph enabled us to reach across the planet. You can no more remove the networked behaviour at this point than you can stop people talking on street corners.
- The invisible website by Michele Ide-Smith I found there are websites and web applications I admire from a user experience perspective, because as a user I enjoy using and interacting with them. They minimise frustration and maximise the experience of finding information, carrying out particular tasks or sharing and communicating with other people.
- HMRC – not very nice but a lot more efficient | Flip Chart Fairy Tales People won’t like it. Most no longer believe the more-for-less spin but a lot still think they will get the same for less. They will be in for a shock. Performance and productivity are not the same thing. The public services of the future will, hopefully, be more cost-effective but, in becoming so, they will won’t give us as much as we have been used to. In some cases, cheap may well mean nasty too.
- Wicked (1) – Charlie’s Diary It is not the case that wicked problems are simply problems that have been incompletely analyzed; there really is no ‘right’ formulation and no ‘right’ answer. These are problems that cannot be engineered. The anger of many of my acquaintances seems to stem from the erroneous perception that they could be solved this way only those damned republicans/democrats/liberals/ conservatives/tree-huggers/industrialists/true believers/ denialists didn’t keep muddying the waters. Because many people aren’t aware that there are wicked problem they experience the failure to solve major complex world issues as the failure of some particular group to understand ‘the real situation.’
- Difference & Relationship Between Usability & User Experience | Usability Geek In terms of a web site, the aim of usability is to make that web site easy to use whilst the aim of user experience is to make the user happy before, during and after using that web site. Thus, usability relates to the ease with which users can achieve their goals while interacting with a web site while user experience is concerned with the way users perceive their interaction with that web site
- John Kay – Kipling’s game theory lessons for Greece In the dollar bill auction, one party eventually scores a pyrrhic victory and takes possession of the dollar bill. Both parties lose, but the smaller loser is the person who sticks out longest. That is not usually the rational player.
- Contrast Rebellion – to hell with low-contrast fonts! Clearly, aesthetics are important but aren’t the ultimate goal of design. And often poor readability doesn’t get noticed during the design process, as we are not like our users. We don’t read the texts as a visitor does.
- Five Popular Web Strategies That Don’t Work | UX Magazine While usability is a must for long-term success, it’s really just table stakes. If your websites and products aren’t useful as well as usable, then all the usability in the world won’t help you.
- What’s the next challenge for Open Government data? | Emma Mulqueeny Forget the data. Find a way to enable these revolutionary ideas, apps, websites and widgets that save time, money and mind-numbing frustration from those who have to engage with government. Do that, and only that.
- Man walks into a column, no.29: Change « arbitrary constant My point is that no amount of cajoling or persuasion will get service users over the natural resistance to change if they can’t experience the benefits of a redesigned service themselves (and after all, we know most politicians are liars, as I’ve blogged before: why trust them?). It’s a version of the ‘if you build it, they will come’ argument. We may hate change, but it’s amazing how quickly and radically we do change if we find something better than we had before.
- Pervasive UX – Who is Responsible? – Digital Optimist As businesses and organisations offer more information and functionality through more channels and in more places, it is imperative that someone considers who all of this was being done for to begin with. If the output, due to internal disagreement, is already a compromise, then the experience for the individual can only be fragmented.
- Stumbling and Mumbling: Rebekah Brooks & modern management Could it be that remote control managers function much as the gods did in ancient times. They get blame when things go wrong and praise when they go right, but in fact have no power at all, except that which ignorant people impute to them? They are, technically, redundant and are sustained in their lucrative positions only by superstition and ideology.
- Our Responsibilities as Citizens | Involve As we discussed the issue, I began to reflect that social media is changing the world far faster than I had understood; the very power of social media to give our opinions a platform also constrains us. With the power of social media comes a level of responsibility that we, who are used to viewing ourselves as private citizens, are only just beginning to understand. We are increasingly public citizens with all the implications that this entails.