Archive for the ‘Information architecture’ Category

Hollow: an interactive documentary

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

If you’ve got a spare ten to fifteen minutes, I really recommend checking out Hollow Documentary. It’s a genuinely interesting look at the rise and fall of small town America (brought to life through Kickstarter).


In amongst the beautiful visuals and mind-boggling amounts of parallax interaction, there’s a particularly interesting design choice: “locked” content that is only available after watching other parts of content. A legitimate piece of gamification at work within a far larger, complex narrative. This might not be that new, but the execution in Hollow’s documentary is really well done: I think because it does present such a strong and compelling story that discovering more is a reward in itself.

The parallax scrolling ties in with however patient you’re feeling: there’s a huge amount of content, and you can either skim through quite quickly enjoying the visuals and the odd sound clip or take your time and soak up every little detail.

My only criticism of the website? A poor choice of target platform: desktop only.

Alas, desktop only...

This type of content experience is where tablets really excel. It’s a shame it wasn’t developed with that in mind — not only are they excluding a large market, they’re also denying them a great experience.

On GOV.UK’s “How designers work”

Friday, March 15th, 2013

Earlier this week, Peter J. Bogaards tweeted a link to a curious quote from the recently published GOV.UK guidance on what to look for when hiring a designer for a Government team:

Looking at the specific guidance, most of it is very good:

How designers work
Designers and front-end developers should work together in one team, designing in-browser. This is a better way of working, avoiding silos and ensuring that decisions are made with complete awareness of the implications.

As a result, the people you hire should already have worked like this, or at least understand it.

When building a team ask to see examples of work and ask the designers to talk you through their contribution….

I totally agree with this. Designers and front-end developers working together in harmony is a wonderful thing and in turn enables us to create wonderful things.

But I’m not so sure about the next piece of advice:

Avoid CVs that emphasise the terms “ux” and “creative”. Especially avoid “creative directors”. These people are probably not a good fit for your team.

On a purely practical level, if you threw away every CV that had the word “ux” or “creative” on it you’d probably be left with a very small pile — if you had a pile at all. Being flippant for a second, imagine this structured as advice for a football coach:

Avoid CVs that emphasise the terms “striker” and “defender”. Especially avoid “captains”. These people are probably not a good fit for your team.

Looking firstly at creative: if a designer isn’t creative, what are they? Isn’t that the entire core of a designer? “Creative designer” seems like a tautology. Creative director is named as such as it describes a position of leadership, seniority and experience. If you’re looking for someone of mid or junior experience, then no, they probably won’t be a good fit.

If I’m not looking for the word creative in a CV, what words should I look for? Digital designer? Visual designer? Web designer?

Now looking at ux, this is where my feelings are slightly stronger. Why should I avoid “ux” designers? If you’re trying to build “user-centred products” then the designers who strive to build such things are often marketing themselves exactly as UX designers. There’s no definition of what UX is either on this page — nor any explanation of why they should be avoided.

Instead of UX designer should I be looking for interaction designers? Information architects? Web designers? Multimedia designers? Interactive designers?

I’m really curious as to why GOV.UK gave this particular advise. It doesn’t give any reasons why creative and ux designers should be avoided — nor what to look for instead. I was hoping to get some insight into this by looking at the Job description templates but unfortunately they’re hitting a 404 page at the moment.

I hope they can clarify this advice in the future — otherwise I think their advice is likely to confuse more than assist.

See Ticket’s Sneaky UI Dark Pattern

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

Buying tickets can be a stressful business. Some gigs sell out in minutes, others never do — but you can never be sure, so being in front of your computer with credit card in hand when the tickets go on sale is the safest way to ensure you see the gig you want to see.

Last Friday Deep Purple tickets went on sale at The Roundhouse. Unsurprisngly, their website was in lock down mode due to massive traffic — both Deep Purple and David Byrne and Saint Vincent tickets went on sale at 9am that day. At position 350 in the queue, I wasn’t sure if I’d get tickets — and certainly not before 9:30am or so, and I was already running late for work.

Thankfully tickets were available on both Ticketmaster and Seetickets. I quickly compared prices between the two, and Seetickets was slightly cheaper — or so I thought.

On the payment page below, I believed I’d be paying £83.81. I usually check forms quite thoroughly before hitting “Buy”, but I was admittedly in a rush… so I got caught out by the sneaky trap below. Can you see it?

See tickets

This is the trap: I require Cancellation Protection for my tickets (additional cost £3.00) and I agree to the terms and conditions.

Not only is it pre-checked, the text at the end “terms and conditions” makes this at a casual glance look very much like a boring T&C checkbox. But no, it’s not: and by not unselecting this box, it added £3.00 extra to my bill.

The next page it confirmed this additional cost — after I’d entered my credit card details and been debited.

See tickets checkout

I can only see this as being a calculated ploy to trick users into buying ticket cancellation insurance. Consider the design below, which is what a more honest retailer would show:

See tickets redux

Now to be fair to See Tickets, they have refunded me on this, and their customer service is very good on Twitter — although their feedback form on the website wasn’t working when I tried to complain about this dupe.

I hope See Tickets rectify this design, as it is totally misleading and unfortunately a classic example of a Dark Pattern in UI.

When personalisation devalues content: Quora Weekly Digest

Monday, March 11th, 2013

Of all the new sites I’ve used lately, Quora is one I’ve become quite hooked on.

Once a week all users receive the “Quora Weekly Digest” — a summary of the most interesting content on the site that week. It used to be my most anticipated email of the week. But lately I’ve noticed it’s become less interesting as it appeared to contain more content from people I follow on Quora — and most of this stuff I’d already read from browsing the site during the day.

This suspicion was confirmed after Jason Kottke recently wrote about his love for the Weekly Digest:

Topics covered in this week’s newsletter include “Could a professional fighter survive an encounter with a fully grown healthy gorilla determined to kill him, without feigning death?”

This is EXACTLY the awesome stuff I used to love about the Weekly Digest. (The answer is “yes”, by the way). It’s totally out of leftfield: and that’s what makes it so interesting.

There was no such question in the Quora Weekly Digest I got the same week. It seems the more you use Quora, the more it tries to personalise the Digest. If you don’t use it much, you get a more generic Digest.

Please Quora, don’t personalise the weekly digest. Pick the best/popular/interesting/crazy stuff and just send it to everyone. It’s much cooler that way.

A little problem with following on Twitter

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

Twitter has an excellent onboarding process that ensures you’ll be seeing tweets of interest within minutes of signing up. This is all part of Twitter’s consistently great user experience; however lately I’ve stumbled upon one exception to this:

Twitter: You are unable to follow more people at this time

You are unable to follow more people at this time.

Lately I hit the 2,000 mark of users followed on Twitter. This is indicative of what I was talking about above: Twitter is fantastic at encouraging you to follow more and more. The “Who to follow” pane is like an intellectual donut shop… juicy avatars of all sorts of users it believes you’ll be interested in.

Mmm, Twitter donuts

And you just want to keep on eating. It’s a classic feedback loop: you click follow and you’ll get a new avatar appearing to tempt you again into following. It’s like a social network slot machine.

But therein lies the issue: depending on your level of followers, sooner or later you run out of coins.

Now Twitter has an interesting support article on following limits that explains how it works. It’s a tricky balance for them: trying to maintain their service, avoiding spam and abuse… there’s a lot of issues at play here.

For me the issue isn’t that they stop you following more than x followers, it’s more the lack of response the interface has to this limit.

It’s a pretty standard and simple convention in UI design that if a user can’t perform an action, either don’t show it or show that it is unavailable. Even though my Twitter follower list is now capped, Twitter still urges me to follow more. Yet if I click “follow” I’m thrown up the same old message: “You are unable to follow more people at this time. Learn more here.” Not great.

But here’s where this issue takes a turn for the worse. There are two ways to follow new people if you’ve hit your limit:

Unfollow users

Unfollowing users on a social network is a slippery slope. It’s hard to maintain a thick skin with this sometimes; anyone who’s used a service like Qwitter knows that it’s hard not to take these things personally when someone unfollows you. Was it something I said? Am I tweeting too much? Am I not as funny as I think I am? Am I tweeting many amusing cat videos? Or has that person hit their limit and is just “pruning” users?

And it’s often tit for tat: if someone unfollows you, it’s only human to want to unfollow them. And ironically, that means both users are followers down now, which sadly affects the number of users you’re allowed to follow: Twitter mentions ratios between following and followers, but doesn’t publish them.

Gain more followers

Telling users to get more followers is potentially negative as well.

“You’re not popular enough.”


Flash backs to highschool anyone?

A more elegent solution

This could work a whole lot better, with a few simple changes.

One option would be to remove the whole “who to follow” pane altogether. But surely there’s a better solution than that.


Let’s say you’re ten users away from your Twitter limit. Why not communicate that to the user?

You're only ten users away...

Positive actions

And if you’ve hit your limit? Why not encourage the user to try and gain more followers?

Join the conversation?

This way the drive to continually interact and engage with Twitter remains while removing frustrating and potentially negative experience.

Your year in review on social networks: Twitter vs Facebook

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

On December 12th I noticed a link on Facebook: “2012: Your year in review”. Boldy it proclaimed:

“A look at your 20 biggest moments from the year including life events, highlighted posts and your popular stories.”

2012 in review

I love these ‘end of year reviews’. They’re one of the best things about the close of the year — looking back over the year that was and reliving highlights (and often lowlights). Some of the more interesting ones from 2012 were Google’s Zeitgeist 2012, 2012 Year on Twitter and The Atlantic’s 2012: The Year in Photos.

Naturally I was really interested to see a personalised year in review from Facebook. Given that I use Facebook a lot — and therefore Facebook knows a lot about me, and has a lot of my data — my expectations were quite high.

Unfortunately, my Facebook year in review was woefully underwhelming. (If you’re friends me on Facebook, you can see my Year in review — or see your own — which is hopefully more interesting than mine).

So why was mine so underwhelming?


When more is actually less

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Lovefilm is a great service. I get plenty of value from it, and I easily watch hours of movies and TV shows on it each week both on my laptop and Playstation 3 (and possibly on mobile — if only they had a mobile streaming service)

Going back to TV specifically, I’ve been slowly making my way through countless hours of Lost on Lovefilm.

I’m in the final stretch now: only a few episodes left of the last season. But at the end of each episode, something happens that just drives me crazy. I see this come up on my screen:

The helpful ‘More like this’ screen suggests Justice with Nicholas Cage and a show called Spartacus: Gods of the Arena. Now I could easily question how relevant these suggestions are to Lost, but what really irks me is…

Why the hell isn’t there a link to the next episode of Lost?

In fact, there is no link anywhere on the entire page to the next episode. There are similar recommendation links on the page that link to random episodes I’ve already seen, but nowhere with a direct link to the next episode. Which would be the most relevant piece of content that could be suggested to me.

You can’t even hack the URL:
(…unless you know the name of the next episode and some mystical six digital ID)

Basically, I’ve got to hit the back button and remember what episode I just watched and click on the next episode under it.

Ultimately, watching TV series like this is infuriating. ‘More like this’ is actually ‘Less like this’.

Please Lovefilm, for Hurley’s sake — just add a link to the next episode in!

Intelligent defaulting, responsive clarification

Saturday, August 25th, 2012

Checking the weather on a gorgeous spring day in London (ostensibly to see how long the beautiful weather will last), and this is the experience documented from the BBC Mobile site:

After clicking weather, I was then prompted to search for my location. I entered London. I was then presented with 15 options for London — the first two in South Africa. BBC Weather is usually pretty good with geolocation, but for some reason on my mobile it can never work out where I am.

That’s not so bad; but seriously, if I enter ‘london’ into any site (let alone the BBC), surely London UK is a far more likely match than East London South Africa or London Canada?

What percentage of users would benefit from defaulting London to London UK (population 8,174,000) and making users from London Canada (population 366,151) and East London South Africa (population 135,560) then change to their London? An awful lot.

Google Maps does this very well: it contextually defaults to the closest geographic match and gives the option of ‘did you mean a different x?’

Intelligent defaulting, responsive clarification: it’s really not that hard.

Life would be so much easier if more sites did this properly; I look forward to the day when I don’t have to see insanely stupid screens like this (thank you journey planner):

Desire paths and how old habits die hard

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

I find the concept of desire paths really fascinating. Over the winter in Gordon Square in London half the park was covered in hazard tape to allow the grass trodden to death by walkers over a desire path to heal. The tape is gone now, the path healed — but no doubt the path will re-emerge soon enough. (In fact I only realised it had healed as I was walking over the path itself — cutting across the grass).

While desire paths are essentially short cuts made by users within a system, I noticed something the other day: when the system goes out of its way to create a new short cut specifically for users, often it’s hard to get users to adopt this easier option.

For me I realised this at Euston Underground station last week. From the Tube station ticket hall, there had been two escalators (one up, one down) and a stair case in the middle. The stairs were rarely used and for the past several months they had been blocked off while an escalator was put installed to replace them.

Heading out of the ticketing platform, the escalators are on a sharp right angle off a straight walk. Without realising I went for the first up escalator, which already had a queue forming. But then I realised the new escalator was now running right next to the original one, but with no one using it.

Commuters had become so used to the walk straight/turn right/queue for first escalator routine virtually no one had noticed the new one.

Over time Euston commuters will obviously notice the new escalator. But for me the most interesting aspect of this was how they had become so preconditioned to the system they failed to see a new and better way to navigate the system.

Perhaps a sign pointing to the new escalator might’ve helped? There are two solutions for new features such as this: either promote it or just wait (and hope) users find it.

Unfortunately, you can never guarantee users to find such things — so perhaps promotion of new features is always the best route.

An overview of SXSW 2012

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

It’s been almost a month now since SXSW Interactive wrapped up — but it really feels like it was much longer ago. Before my memories get too blurry, now seems a great time to put together an overview of what happened at South-By this year.

It was colder and wetter in Austin than London for the first three days. Not fair in the slighest.


First and foremost: it was busy. Bigger. Much bigger! I heard various numbers about how much larger the attendance was. Someone in my hotel said there were 7,000 extra attendees this year. Day-to-day it was hard to notice this surge — it was only during the mammoth registration queue and equally mammoth queues to get into the after session parties that this really became apparent. The parties last year were fantastic — but I didn’t go to anywhere near as many this time because of the staggering wait times. But the upside of this was just enjoying local Austin bars and food — or being studious yet boring by going back to my hotel early to write up notes and ideas from the day.

…and better

Generally, as well as bigger, it was definitely better. The quality of the talks and panels this year were fantastic. Last year was great, but this year was greater. (Or I just chose better this year!)

Data is still a hot topic

The amount of presentations about data (and visualisation) were telling of what the SXSW organisers are thinking: that this is still a very important and topical subject. But a look at the titles of these presentations is also telling: sex sells. And so does putting ‘sexy’ and ‘data’ together in your panel idea. Sexy dirty data. Sexy data for public transit systems. Data is sexier than sex. Data is a sex machine — it honestly makes me wonder why the organisers didn’t create a special venue called the Data Bordello or something similarly flippant. If anything, the presence of ‘sexy’ in so many talks about data viz makes it clear that interest in the topic has definitely moved into the mainstream.

But what concerns me is the future of this mainstream interest in data viz: will it be more Hans Rosling or more chart junk saturation that is already dominating the web with 3mb high-res graphics with little or no value?

Science and design

While data visualisation wasn’t mentioned in Ben McAllister, many of the points he raised are very relevant. Specifically Ben discussed what he calls “scientism” – what feels like science, but it isn’t the real thing. We’re all both guilty of this and also victims of scientism in day-to-day life: making arguments (or fighting other arguments) by using pseudo-scientific reasoning. We’ve all done it: avoided something a client or stakeholder wants by saying ‘research’ or ‘testing’ showed it was ‘a bad idea’. Basically, so much of what we do in design is formed by pseudo-scientific method. User testing can be highly scientific and can be very insightful: but it’s also incredibly easy to skew results and taint the users being tested with what we actually want to hear. Ben has a great article on the topic on The Atlantic — definitely worth reading.

Interaction design as brand interaction

Another theme at SXSW was the idea of how interaction design is ultimately brand design. It cropped up in a few talks I saw, but specifically Marc Shillum really went into this at the panel he chaired entitled ‘Brands as Patterns‘. I’m still getting my head around the finer points, but I think it’s a very interesting concept — you can read more at the Method 10×10 site.

For example, something that occurred to me after the session: the Ryanair website is often criticized for its poor usability, poor design and shady-bordering-on-dark usability patterns. But thinking about Ryanair’s general brand, the interaction experienced on the website is an absolutely faithful interaction with Ryanair’s brand. The airline that wants to charge you a pound to use the toilet is of course going to hide ‘fees’ and ‘extras’ until the very end of the booking process.

Touch on the web

Josh Clark presented a brilliant talk on designing touch interfaces in Teaching Touch: Tapworthy Touchscreen Design. As someone who does most their work in a browser, Josh pointed out a very large elephant in the room: our standard interaction toolkits on the web are appalling behind their native mobile and tablet cousins. Even getting simple swipes working with jQuery is buggy at best — nevermind pinch, zoom and multi-finger gestures. How long before we can natively make use of these new touch gestures in the browser? It might be quite a while.

Sports and fandom in the digital world

I managed to catch some great presentations about how sport and fandom is changing in the face of social media and new technology. Not only was it a great mix of different sports and presenters from different countries, it was also very thought provoking. Ticketmaster now lets you find your Facebook friends at events so you can sit near them. This is just scratching the surface of how technology and social networks will change the sporting experience — and there are some very exciting opportunities here.

Free food

And most importantly, the best free food? Definitely the Turner Recharge Lounge, who served up incredible jalapeño chorizo and jalapeño gravy to boot. Absolutely delicious.

Now, how am I going to get to SXSW 2013…