Fighting button-shaped thoughts.

I’ve used mostly one prototyping tool in consultancies and agencies I’ve worked with. You can probably guess what it is. Although it doesn’t actually matter which one it is.

There are problems with using only one tool. Some problems are practical: you end up working in terms of the tool and its limitations, rather than the platform. Design decisions are subtly influenced by how easy it is to do something in the tool, by presets and shortcuts. I’m reminded of something Ted Nelson said:

“If the button is not shaped like the thought, the thought will end up shaped like the button.”

In addition, there are org problems: documentation is comforting, and there remains a mindset that you can buy a stack of wireframes to solve a design problem, rather than integrating design properly into company projects and processes. A tool provides a clean, tidy way to share a stack of documents, “something nice and clickable”. It provides a sense of completion and comfort, but I think a good design process is messier than that. The good stuff happens during conversations and collaborations, and the pain and joy of implementing a design. At the end, you should have something real, not just plans for something.

A mono-tooled industry disturbs me. I recently saw a job title on LinkedIn: “Axure Designer” (and no, they didn’t work at Axure). It made me laugh, but perhaps it’s just fair enough for the job they’re paid to do.

Joining GDS

As of mid-January I’ve been working for the Government Digital Service (GOV.UK) as an interaction designer. I’ve watched GDS’ progress with amazement since the launch of I actually worked a little with GDS before in early 2012, when I was working on a certain government project with a certain large consulting company. Even back then it was a massive relief and breath of fresh air to shrug off limitations and start challenging the way government was doing things digitally.

So I’m extremely excited to finally be a part of GDS. It’s going great so far: it’s especially good to be doing things in a different way (no Axure, for starters) – I’m prototyping in the browser, which has pros and cons (in a nutshell, writing html and css takes longer than drawing a box and adding some interactions in Axure. But designing in Axure brings along a whole set of other problems. You start thinking in terms of how Axure works, rather than how the browser works. And you lose control over things like typography and transitions, and the end result is uglier – truly just uglier. Axure is a wonderful tool for some things, though, and I can’t argue that it’s extremely good when you want to make quick prototypes. More thoughts on this later.) I’m also typing things into Terminal (getting to grips with Git, hosting the prototype on Heroku) – all new things to me, and a different challenge, but one I’m enjoying a lot.

Adventures in growing beans in London

After living in both hotels and hotel-like flats for the last couple of years, it’s a huge relief to live somewhere with outside space (and, well… space). Growing things allows a tiny bit of nature and dirt and reality into an otherwise typical disconnected urban antiseptic lifestyle.

French beans

I planted them in early May, two beans each in two troughs. They took a long time to sprout. It was hugely exciting when they did.


Eventually, they grew so tall I had to find some bamboo poles to support them. Most gardening shops (Clapham has many) will sell these.

The best thing about growing something is the anticipation and visible progress – a tiny peep of the tip of the bud, which a few days later grows a bit taller. Then eventually you see some tiny leaves, which grow bigger, and omg there’s a bud, and it’s grown a bit taller. Eventually, it flowers, and then you can see a tiny bean.

The yield was low: about 20 beans total. Not quite enough to set up my own stall at a local market. Because there were so few beans, I felt like the meal should be special and I should plan it properly. When I usually buy vegetables it’s to have them handy to accompany something – they’re an afterthought.

The time and effort that went into growing my own food changed how I see really cheap bean packets in the supermarkets. So much time, effort and care went into growing them, and I cringe to think of times I’ve chucked away vegetable packs because I’ve forgotten about them and they’re now a bit wilted.

Testing isn’t a luxury.

This is your baby design, swimming in big wide ocean. (I had to make this photo relevant somehow.)

Three main things:

  • People will surprise you.
  • Testing tends to be worth doing.
  • It doesn’t have to be expensive.

Testing is seen as a luxury. In all design and software projects, some degree of validation is necessary to check you’re not going down a route that’s a bad idea and would be expensive to change later on.

Rapid prototyping is brilliant for this reason: it allows multiple ideas to be explored, iterated, and tested like it’s a real thing. In a worst case scenario, your favourite design might baffle or alienate a person you’re trying to serve. But it’s actually exciting when people do struggle with something and you immediately understand why and how it could be made better!

Scrappy but useful

Testing in the real world, and not in academia, tends to be scrappy and not particularly scientific. This is fine as it yields feedback that is still useful. Plus, we designers usually test consumer-facing UI rather than the effects of medicine or the safety of a vehicle.

Nevertheless, it’s handy to be aware of bias:

  1. We test a low number of people: eight is not a large sample size.
  2. We tend to influence results in lots of ways, for example, unconsciously confirming problems that we simply suspect exist.

Improvement epiphanies

Analysing themes in the data don’t usually indicate a clear “yes” or “no”, and it’s easy to bias the results by giving greater attention to one problem over another.

However, in the process of testing, you’ll find people experience the same problems, or struggle over the same hurdles. The results will aid a judgment call.

Quick test guide

  1. Have a simple prototype ready.
    I make a clickable prototype in Axure, but you can use anything (simple images, paper, HTML). The prototype usually demonstrates a simple flow of the design.
  2. Find people to test.
    You need to get hold of some appropriate people to use the prototype.Decide who you need to test – ideally, these would be people who might typically use the product.
    Decide how many people to test – 8 is about right.
    Decide how long you want to test them for – 1 hour is normal.
    Decide a reward – £50 is about right.
    Plan a schedule – I’ve tested 8 people over two days, but it might be better to test over four days to allow more time between sessions, better note-keeping, or even iterative improvements between testing sessions (especially if you see something easy that you can fix).
  3. Write a script.
    I create two documents: a warm-up / introduction with a few questions (10 mins) related to the topic (for example, retail or shopping apps, and real-world shopping habits), followed by a longer session (30-45 mins) which involve the users performing tasks on the prototype.
  4. Collect data.
    Ideally, you want
    someone to take notes
    audio recording of the session
    video recording can be useful, but not necessary, to collect people’s responses and reactions as they use the prototype
  5. Analyse data.
    You might have noticed themes arising during the testing. Make a note of all problems and repeat problems. One way to do this is by jotting recurring themes down on post-it notes.
  6. Iterate.
    Make some design improvements and test again, if you can. Unfortunately, it’s notoriously tricky to sell user testing to clients, so you might not be able to do a second round of testing.

Spotify mobile UI: the “available offline” toggle

Spotify is an essential service. It’s usurped iTunes as far as I’m concerned – I no longer sync any music to my iPhone. Music I want to look up in a whim is instantly available, playlists sync across my work and home computers, as well as my mobile devices. It’s convenient and wonderful.

But there is always this vague nagging sense of insecurity over my playlists that iTunes never gave me. I rely on a wifi connection to listen to music, or the ability to sync music to make it available offline. Thankfully, Spotify has the latter feature.

Frighteningly, this important feature can be toggled in a clumsy split second:

The effect is instant. I’ve stood gutted on the treadmill watching a playlist become unplayable because I hit the button by accident.

I’m not sure why it’s a toggle. If I’ve decided a playlist should be available offline, it shouldn’t be that easy to reverse the decision, especially if syncing over a connection is involved – especially on mobile Spotify, where it’s difficult to predict my location, and if I’m listening to my iPhone I’m almost certainly not in an office with a good wifi connection. I definitely don’t need to see a button for it every time I load my Starred playlist.

I doubt Spotify has tested this with users. This is a small thing that really affects my enjoyment of the service.

Contributing to this problem: a recent update to the mobile app has broken syncing. In a previous update, toggling online/offline would instantly begin the syncing process for making music available offline, but now songs only become available once I’ve played them (usually over a mobile data connection).

Fix it

  1. Keep the toggle, but add a confirmation screen as a safety net
  2. Keep the toggle, but allow some time to pass before activating the changes (in the scenario the toggle is hit by accident, it can be changed with no effect)
  3. Put the option for changing offline availability elsewhere
  4. Sync all my music at once when I’m connected to wifi

Please fix it, Spotify!

Quotes from ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’

Some favourite quotes from Richard Dawkins, ‘The Ancestor’s Tale‘. Dawkins is known for militant secularism. This has unfortunately eclipsed his science writing about evolution, which is brilliant, accessible and illuminating.

On being unfinished:

A living creature is always in the business of surviving in its own environment. It is never unfinished – or, in another sense, it is always unfinished. So, presumably, are we.

On the K-T extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs:

The noise of the impact, thundering round the planet at a thousand kilometres per hour, probably deafened every living creature not burned by the blast, suffocated by the wind-shock, drowned by the 150-metre tsunami that raced around the literally boiling sea, or pulverised by an earthquake a thousand times more violent than the largest ever dealt by the San Andreas fault. And that was just the immediate cataclysm. Then there was the aftermath – the global forest fires, the smoke and dust and ash which blotted out the sun in a two-year nuclear winter that killed off most of the plants and stopped dead the world’s food chains.

Dawkins’ post-Armageddon vision:

If nuclear war destroys humanity and most of the rest of life, a good bet for survival in the short term, and for evolutionary ancestry in the long term, is rats. I have a post-Armageddon vision. We and all other large animals are gone. Rodents emerge as the ultimate post-human scavengers. They gnaw their way through New York, London and Tokyo, digesting spilled larders, ghost supermarkets and human corpses and turning them into new generations of rats and mice, whose racing populations explode out of the cities and into the countryside. When all the relics of human profligacy are eaten, populations crash again, and the rodents turn on each other, and on the cockroaches scavenging with them.

On mudskippers:

They also take in oxygen through the skin, which has to be kept moist. If a mudskipper is in danger of drying out, it will roll about in a puddle. Their eyes are especially vulnerable to dryness, and they sometimes wipe them with a wet fin. The eyes bulge close together near the top of the head, where, as with frogs and crocodiles, they can be used as periscopes to see above the surface when the fish is underwater. When out on land, a mudskipper will frequently withdraw its bulging eyes into their sockets to moisten them.

New York impressions

I visited New York last week. I rented a room on airbnb (great deal: £294 for 6 nights) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; an interesting area full of artists and hipsters, the cousin of the Mission in San Francisco and Shoreditch in London. It’s also central, being just two subway stops from Manhattan.

Staying in an airbnb apartment is odd. It’s an impersonal transaction where you pay for the space, yet it’s much more personal and much less private than a hotel. I’m a fan of the anonymity, impersonality, privacy of hotels, so this was out of my comfort zone. That said, I’d do it again, but I’d read the reviews thoroughly.

My host was completely fine. The problem was the shape of the apartment: though I had my own entrance, there was another door from my room into my host’s bedroom. There was also generous window high up at the top of the room, connecting our rooms. This meant when my host’s bedroom light was on, it’d also light up my room. (Making this an actual problem was that my host liked to keep the lights on in his room all night. Maybe he thought I was dangerous?)

Brunch was one of my favourite things about Williamsburg. I had brunch at Egg in Williamsburg twice. They do a dish called Eggs Rothko, which is easy-cooked egg on a slice of brioche, covered with cheddar (photo). I wanted to go to Parish Hall, but sadly didn’t get around to it. I strongly appreciate that brunch is a proper thing that people take seriously in New York. If I’d stayed longer in Williamsburg, I’d have tried all the recommended places.

I bought a week MTA pass for about $30, and quickly figured out how to get from Williamsburg to Manhattan. It’s not easy to spot the subway entrances in the city, which are pretty unmissable in London as street furniture that help you find your way around. I noticed that an average subway crowd in New York is better preened and better dressed (sorry London, but it’s true), and manicures seem to be as basic as salon haircuts. These are some of the shallow observations you make during a week in a new city.

The New York grid is much more egalitarian than London’s sprawl, which has pros and cons. Central Park is an obvious visual focal point, and the surrounding avenues and streets. The advantage of the grid is that you can meet at intersections, and if you look left or right while crossing an avenue, you can see stunning views across Manhattan. Because the lines of the map tended to be equal, it was much less obvious to me where I should go first.

Service in New York was sometimes unfriendly. I don’t mean neutral, but actually grumpy and sour. It was clearer to me who hated their jobs. I had a glare from a barista in Williamsburg while she was taking my order for coffee. (I’m advised this is a phenomenon in Williamsburg, where everyone is working on their novels, and see their barista or bar job as beneath them.) I had a funny run-in with a waiter on the Upper East Side, while out with an old colleague. The waiter handed us a garbled receipt with a total that seemed high. I asked him to explain the items on the receipt, which he didn’t appeciate. He ended an unhelpful explanation with a curt “BYE-BYE!”.

I think New York would be an amazing place to live as a young and single person. (Dating, I’m told, is much more of a structured “thing” than it is in London, where it exists in a sort of embarrassed, apologetic purgatory of not-really-any-rules). There are amazing social and professional opportunities, many exceptional restaurants and cheap places for brunch, parks, museums, galleries. I loved MoMA. There are unique venues like Barcade in Brooklyn, where I’d go all the time.

But I was happy to come home. Coming home felt smoother and more pleasant and friendly than the entry to the US. I have a heightened appreciation for things like the clear and easy station signage at Heathrow and Paddington, the maze-like streets, the unpolished people riding the tube.

Africa weekend notes

The Cradle of Humankind

I visited Maropeng last Saturday with a couple of Fjord colleagues. The museum is a decent introduction to human evolution, but I was disappointed that there weren’t more actual fossils on display. Unfortunately there was no time to visit Sterkfontein cave (where Mrs. Ples was discovered).

Pilanesberg Nature Reserve

We stayed in Rustenberg overnight, leaving early in the morning to see the sunrise.

Spotting animals at Pilanesberg is a game of luck. Binoculars would have been a good idea. But we were incredibly lucky: we spotted an elephant within the first 10 minutes, and continued to see, in no particular order:

  • blue wildebeest
  • zebra
  • warthogs
  • a dinosaur-like secretary bird
  • a hippo
  • giraffes
  • elephants

Here are my favourite photos in vague chronological order:


(See video of turtles crawling on the hippo’s back)

Exhibition: Light Show, Hayward Gallery

30 January – 28 April 2013
Hayward Gallery
Tickets: about £11 (here)

I saw some photos from this exhibition in a newspaper, and knew I had to go. Here’s the full list of artists in the exhibition.

Humans often project emotions on the weather and vice versa: an overcast day is “gloomy”, and someone’s positive attitude can be “sunny”. Lighting can completely transform the mood and feeling of a space, and it’s explored beautifully in this exhibition, which can be appreciated emotionally and intuitively as well as mentally.

Some of my favourites from yesterday’s visit to the Hayward Gallery:

Slow Arc inside a Cube IV (2009) by Conrad Shawcross

I spent ten minutes sitting in this room:

It sort of sent me and other visitors into a meditative state; other visitors would come in and also sit down and just watch. It’s like sitting under a tree in the summer and watching the shadows move with the wind.

Conrad Shawcross describes the work as “a metaphor for the discipline of science”, and his sculptures explore interests such as “physics and metaphysics, biology, geometry, philosophy and cosmology”.

“The work involves a complex play of moving light and shadows and owes its generis to an anecdote about the immensely complicated process of of mapping the molecular structure of insulin by means of crystal radiography, a feat achieved by the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dorothy Hodgkin.”

 (1965–2013) by Carlo Cruz-Diez

This “creates a space where colour acts with all its force on the spectator’s skin, objects and surrounding wall surfaces”. Colour is a situation:

“Since the retina usually perceives a wide range of colours simultaneously, experiencing these monochromatic situations causes disturbances. This activates and awakens the notions of colour in the viewer, who becomes aware of colour’s material and physical existence.”


Magic Hour, by David Batchelor

“Magic hour is named for the extraordinary spectacle of light – a mix of sunset colours and the glow from artificial lights – that transforms the twilight sky above Las Vegas.”

On carousels

Some interesting comments and data related to carousels, the popular mechanism for rotating content on a webpage:

Carousels are organizational crutches“. Nobody can decide what content is most important, so a carousel is a weak and lazy crowd-pleaser:

“It’s far harder to have an honest content strategy conversation and determine what truly deserves to be on the homepage.”

The most compelling argument not to use one is that carousels are just not that effective: Erik Runyon’s data shows that carousels don’t get interacted with that much.