Not Evangelism

Friday, December 31, 2010

My Pen Ran Out

...ran out of ink, that is. I exhausted the ink cartridge, I mean.

And I don't mean that I emptied one of those mean little fountain pen cartridges that last five or six minutes. This cartridge was the slender refill in my Cross ballpoint.

When I wrote about the environmentalism of pens, and the act of using a pen until the ink ran out, it didn't occur to me that I'd be in that situation quite so soon.

It's a pleasing situation to be in, having used something up completely; it's like realising the full potential of the ink cartridge. Kind of like using a chicken carcass to make stock or soup once the meat has been picked from the bones. Nothing is wasted. I like that. There's a sense of completeness, too, of finality.

I suppose, on reflection, I could have guessed that the skinny Cross refills would not last as long as the slightly portlier Parker or Faber-Castell refills. But the Cross has been my every day work pen for the last couple of years, so I've had a good run out of it. It's an uneven comparison, but I'll be interested to see how much longer the refills from the other manufacturers last.

I'll also be interested to see how long the new Cross refill lasts. That said, my replacement refill has a medium nib (the original had a fine nib) so may not last as long as the original. It's a curious thought, that a fine nib pen is somehow better value - less wasteful - than one with a thicker nib.

So I have a fresh ink cartridge for a fresh new year. What perfect timing.

Related articles:

Monday, December 27, 2010

My Cycling Year: 2010

Well the numbers are in, and I have commuted 1015 miles on my bike this year.

The month-on-month breakdown is as follows:

January72 miles (3 times)
February72 miles (3 times)
March134 miles (6 times)
April121 miles (5.5 times)
May132 miles (6 times)
June0 miles
July66 miles (3 times)
August88 miles (4 times)
September154 miles (7 times)
October110 miles (5 times)
November66 miles (3 times)
December0 miles
Total1015 miles

Note: My commute is around 11 miles long, but at the start of the year I was doing a 12 mile route that included a half mile stretch on a busy dual carriageway. People told me I was crazy to do it, although I had no problems. That said, I am much happier with the shorter, quieter route on an almost-traffic-free bridleway.


April was a good month; I'm surprised I managed to cycle commute as much as I did, not least because I was on Jury service for nearly 2 weeks, and not cycling into the office during that time.

June was less good. My son had just been born, and I had two weeks of paternity leave where I wasn't commuting at all. In the second half of the month, and into July, I decided that it was more important to be able to get home quickly to support my wife than it was to cycle commute. I kind of feel that's closer to an excuse than a reason, but I'm satisfied with my choice.

I'm surprised that September turned out to be the month with the biggest number of miles. I suspect I had done some arithmetic and realised that unless I got on with it, I wasn't going to make my target of the big 1000.

In December, a combination of annual leave and heavy snowfall meant that I didn't cycle at all; the office was closed for three days because of the snow. I missed it.

Final thoughts

On balance, I'm well pleased; my target was to complete 1000 miles on the bike. As one friend pointed out, that's the length of the End-to-End of the British Isles, from Land's End to John O'Groats. It's a nice, round number, a satisfying number.

On the other hand, it's a long way from an epic achievement.

In all, I've cycle commuted 47.5 times (the half comes from driving in and cycling home, or vice versa, a pleasant compromise between all-out bike commuting and all-out driving). On average, that's only about once a week, allowing for annual leave and time away from the office. In other words around 20-25% of my annual commuting mileage was on my bike. That's not bad, but it's still a minority; my goal is to cycle commute the majority of the time.

Oh, I could waste time justifying why I didn't cycle more, or I could celebrate the fact that, on average, one day a week, I didn't use my car. One day a week, I was out in the world, under the sky, feeling the wind in my face. One day a week I bookended my working day with exercise; my blood pumping, my legs moving. Travelling at a more gentle pace, I had the time to enjoy sunrises and sunsets. I chased those fleeting moments when everything came together and I was In The Zone, cycling the beautiful cadence.

That's more than I could have said the year before. That's enough, for 2010 at least.

In 2011, my goal is to double the number of times I cycle commute. I'm expecting it to be at least twice the fun.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Utensils and Ornaments: On Waste and Clutter

One of my personal principles is the reduction of avoidable waste.

I imagine that when many people think of waste, they think of rubbish, trash, effluent.  They might also think about things that are bought and paid for but not actually used.

The first sort of waste we might call byproduct waste; waste as a consequence of consumption. This sort of waste can usually be reduced - minimised, even - but not always avoided.  After all, bananas must be peeled, apples have cores that are not usually eaten. Sure, these particular things can be composted (that's another article) but they're examples of consequential waste.

The second type of waste - wasting something by not using it at all - is entirely avoidable - with planning, with careful, considered choices and decisions. Carrots that rot, unused because we bought too many (buy one, get one free!). Apples that lay wrinkled and forgotten in the fruit bowl because the easy-to-grab bag contained more than we eat in a week.

I think there's a third type of waste (in some ways a variation of the second type) in the form of clutter. Things bought for projects we haven't started, and likely never will. Impulse purchases that we turn out not to be what we want or need. And those unexpected presents of beauty products we never use (I'm not the only person that gets these, am I?).  They're all waste in the same way as leftover food; bought and paid for, but not used. They've lost their utility.

When Utensils Become Ornaments

I like to think that when something is not used, it becomes useless. To put it another way something unused stops being useful - a utensil - and becomes clutter - an ornament. Ornaments are time-consuming; they need dusting, protecting; they need effort. Or perhaps they're hidden away, forgotten about; in which case they stop being ornaments and become (even worse) junk.

I'd far rather have utensils than ornaments; things to be used as opposed to things to be looked at. I don't mean that I don't like art, because I do; the function of art - of pictures and paintings - is to be looked at. But things that are intended to be used - utensils - but which end up sitting on a shelf, waiting to used - these  that have become unintentional ornaments. Clutter.

Clutter is Sneaky Waste

Clutter is a sneaky kind of waste - lying around, waiting to be dusted, cluttering up the place. They're basically taking up space whilst they're waiting to be thrown out - because if I'm not using something, then I don't need it. Which means I've wasted time, money and effort on buying it, and I'm going to have to spend more time and effort getting rid of it. Not to mention the cost of producing it in the first place; cost that has no payback in use because it's just not getting used. Clutter is distracting, too, wasting mental effort and energy.

Another sneaky kind of waste is the stuff that's waiting for the right occasion, something saved for best (but best never comes). This is the Too Nice To Use kind of waste. Clothes often fall into this category, hiding in the wardrobe, waiting for the right occasion, or the day they will fit once again.

When I find something that has become an ornament in my life, I give myself two options: use it (and I mean really use it, regularly, not just some token effort every now and again). Or get rid of it; if I don't use something, then it needs to be passed on, recycled, re-purposed, disposed of. I give myself a little time to trial the decision; an amnesty, if you like. I look honestly, objectively, at my habits and make the decision: use it and keep it. Or get rid.

I like using something that is intended to be used. But I don't regret getting rid of genuine waste.

Christmas Clutter

The subject of waste and clutter is something I expect I'll be thinking about quite a lot over the next few days. I'm not a killjoy; I love the festival of giving that we celebrate at this time of year. But it can bring unwanted, unused gifts too. In these circumstances, I think it's possible to separate the intention of giving from the gift itself. Whether a present is a utensil or an ornament is a decision made by the receiver, not the giver.

But those decisions can be saved for the New Year. Whatever you give, whatever you get, I hope your Christmas doesn't bring you too many ornaments.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Last Ride of 2010

...has been and gone.  With this snow, and my Christmas plans, it seems unlikely I'll be doing any more cycling in 2010.

It's a strange, sad knowledge. I miss it already, having had a week away on holiday, and not cycled for what seems like ages.

Oh, I'm not ruling out the chance of a fun ride or two - a cheeky Boxing Day pootle, perhaps - but unless there's a dramatic and impressive thaw, there's currently little chance of a cycle commute this month.

We've not had the snow that bad here in semi-rural Wiltshire, but the 4 or 5 inches on quieter country roads is enough to make cycling a hazard - I know from first hand experience at the start of the year just what the roads are like in the snow and ice.

That's not to say I wouldn't have given it a try as I miss cycling more and more. Yes, if the mountain bike had a chain, I might have considered cycling last Friday. But frankly, I'm glad I didn't have the chance.

I might even have considered cycling today. But the conditions, whilst passable now, will not be passable later.

Friday, December 17, 2010

An Environmentalist at Christmas

Don't worry.  This isn't another of those ghastly "How to Have a Greener Christmas" articles.  No, that's your business.  I'm just sharing a few thoughts on how the so-called festive season poses a few challenges for those with environmental interests.  For me, it's about hanging on to my environmental principles in a holiday season that seems to be encouraging me to do quite the opposite.

The major part of my objection is to the waste. Christmas is not inherently wasteful any more than environmentalism is inherently frugal. but this time of year does seem to go hand in hand with indulgence, over-indulgence and excess. And Christmas waste - where value is somehow diluted or removed all together, from my perspective at least, comes in many forms.

Unnecessary presents (often over-packaged)

There's all those presents that people buy because they feel they ought to, but don't really know the person well enough to know what to get.  So we end up with "smellies" and bath sets - all boxed and be-ribboned and festooned with all sorts of "festive" packaging. Which is just so much waste.

And I don't really get those "Buy a Goat for a Village"-type presents, either.  Charity is a good and laudable thing, but it's becoming a commodity.  Buying a goat for a village as a present for someone is being charitable on their behalf. As if they can't do it themselves. You're giving someone your own feel-good factor. I don't understand it.

Vast Amounts of Food

Looking at the bulging cupboards at Christmas, it sometimes seems like we try and cram all our food treats into a few days, buying loads of different treats and stuffing ourselves with them.  Surely it's better to spread it out over a longer period; winter has a few weeks left in her after Christmas. And all that food - you know it - comes in a variety of distinctive seasonal packaging - even more unnecessary than usual, and adding no actual value; it's the same biscuits inside that festive wrapper.

Piles of Paper

All that wrapping! All those cards! Yes, I like shiny presents and brightly coloured packages as much as the next person.  But I deplore the piles of paper that are left after the festival of unwrapping.  And much as I love getting letters and cards, there's quite a lot of usually-not-recycled cards and envelopes.  I'm happy to receive what comes and make sure that I do recycle it when the time comes. But I'm left with a feeling of disquiet, a sense that there's a better way.

Recycled wrapping paper is hard to find. Oh, I've tried wrapping paper alternatives, attempting to be arty with brown kraft paper and string.  One year I saved my Sunday newspapers for weeks, choosing sheets by matching the article to the present and person.  With a bit of cunning visual association, I didn't need to use tags either.  It wasn't as much fun.

These days I've come to think of my presents as something to put under the tree and enjoy looking at for a week or two; a temporary art installation, as it were.  Wrapping at the eleventh hour on Christmas Eve somehow doesn't get as much value out of the wrapping paper. It's certainly less enjoyable.

And speaking of trees...

Christmas Trees

I love Christmas trees.  And I'm completely convinced of the benefits of a living tree rather than some plastic fabricated monstrosity.  I mean buying a locally-grown real tree - something with a root ball rather than a cut tree. But I'm quite aware of the arguments against planting non-native species, and the land set aside for it.

And even buying trees with rootballs I struggle to keep them alive for more than a couple of years. But when I see the discarded trees piled up in January I wonder that we couldn't do something better than chucking out so much over-priced firewood.

My Environmental Christmas

I'm no killjoy.  We all need some joy and celebration in these darker months.  I want to enjoy my Christmas, and live my principles at the same time. I'm going to keep doing the small things, shifting my Christmas gradually towards something more satisfying to my pragmatic environmentalist principles.

Last year, we bought a little wooden advent calendar that we can re-use from year to year, filling it with personalised treats.  I hope it becomes a family tradition. I'm going to keep trying to find locally-produced turkey, and make home-made crackers.

I like home-made presents too; jams and chutneys were honestly among some of the more delightful presents I've received in recent years.

For me Christmas is about spending time, slowing down a little and enjoying things a little more (or a lot more). It's about the personal touch; being with people because we want to, not because we ought to.

Step by baby step. Making Christmas what I want it to be. What will you be doing for your holiday season? Leave me a comment and let me know.

Related articles:

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

User experience and email communications

Get your email communication strategy right

I've recently started getting email from Southern Railway, a train operating company serving the south of England. This is odd not least because I don't live in the area they serve, and I rarely travel to it or through it. In fact, I'm sure the only reason why I'm receiving the email is because I used their service to travel to UX Brighton earlier this year.

And this is one of the problems with Southern Railway's email communication strategy: it's not clear why I'm receiving the email. There's no indication I'm getting these messages because I signed up to some information service.

There are other problems too: when I received the first email, from "Southern", I didn't recognise it.  Indeed, Southern is their trading name, but they also use Southern Railway (three times in the email above) and their website is  There's no indication of why I'm getting the email, or how to stop receiving them. In short, it feels like mass-marketing, spam.

Here, then, are some guidelines for improving the user experience of your email communications.

Be clear about who you are

My mail program reports the sender of the email simply as "Southern". Although Southern is the trading name of the company, without context (such as in the From line of the email), it's meaningless. My first guess was Southern Electric, an energy company I used to be a customer of.

Don't assume your users will have a preview pane that might give them a clue about who you are, or that you will get any more screen space than a scan of the From and Subject lines. Users are busy, selective and suspicious. Don't give them a reason to ignore or delete your email, or flag it as spam. You've lost them before they've even opened your email.

Be clear about why your readers are receiving the email

Include a statement about why the users are getting the email. Reassure them that you're not spamming them. Users are busy; they might not remember signing up with you for your service. They might not have noticed the checkbox that your website helpfully defaulted for them. Most of all, users may suspect that you are spamming them, and once lost, trust is mightily difficult to rebuild.

It can be as simple as a statement like "You're receiving this email because you signed up for news updates on our website".

Be personal: use their name

The email above is addressed "Dear Passenger", making me feel like they don't know me, don't care about me. If I signed up for information, I'm pretty sure they've got my name. It's not much of a stretch to include it in the email.

Include the email address (or username) the user signed up with

This is also trivially simple to do. And it adds another layer of trust, another prompt to the user that they really did sign up with you. The worst thing that can happen (as in this case) is that the users do click through to your website, and are prompted for an email address or username that they can't remember.

Make it clear how to unsubscribe from the email

Every email should include a direct link to unsubscribing. It should be trivially easy for users to do so. If users want to unsubscribe but can't, they often end up blocking your emails, which impacts on your bounce rate and ends up costing your business money.

One-click unsubscribe is a big deal. It builds confidence. Remember that when users remove themselves from your contact list, it's still a contact point. Make it work for you. Let your users remember you for the right reasons.

In the Southern Railway email, there's no mention of how to unsubscribe from future emails. When I couldn't see anything in the email about why I was receiving the email, I then looked for some words around "managing my communication preferences" or "unsubscribing from these notifications". Nothing.

In the end, I resorted to clicking through to the website, where I was prompted to sign in. I guessed at a username and password and got lucky. But then couldn't then find any information about communication or contact preferences.

Result: frustration. Annoyance. Lack of trust.

In short: make life easy and obvious for your users

How many problems were there with this email, and the website I arrived at? Bad addressing, unclear authorship, poor messages, no easy way out. I only got as far as I did because I'm interested in the subject and I'm writing an article about user experience and email communications. Would another user get this far?

What do your email newsletters say about you? Are they as polished as your website? What could you do to make your email communications better for your users?

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Monday, December 13, 2010

Cycle2Work: Choosing a bike to commute on

My company has (finally, after several months of waiting) introduced a Cycle2Work scheme through CycleScheme, and I have ordered a new bike.

Cycle2Work is a scheme introduced by the UK Government to encourage bike usage in employees; effectively the company buys the bike and leases it to the employee (that's me!) over a fixed term.  At the end of the lease period, the bike can be bought for "a nominal sum". From the employee's point of view, it's kind of like a cheap loan (except the company owns the bike until the end of the scheme).  The lease payments are taken direct from salary, before tax and national insurance are charged. This arrangement reduces the tax and national insurance paid by the employee, and means that ultimately the bike is cheaper than it would be to buy directly. Up to £1000 can be spent on a bike and other equipment (helmet, lights etc).

The scheme has more subtleties and complexities than I've included above, but the fact of it is getting a new bike for less money.

A bike for cycle commuting

I've chosen an On-One Pompino Road Sport, a steel-framed singlespeed/fixedwheel bike made by a British company based in my native Yorkshire.
I'm very excited.

The Giant SCR2 that I've been using for my commuting and other riding for a couple of years cost me £550 brand new (from the excellent AW Cycles).  The equivalent bike these days is the Giant Defy 2, retailing at around £800.  In other words, the bike that I can buy with the £1000 from the Scheme is not much better than the bike I already own.

So I chose the Pompino, a singlespeed/fixed commuter that I've lusted after for a long time. The frame is steel so is robust for the month-in, month-out mileage. And it's singlespeed so doesn't have any complex shifters or mechanisms to get attacked by the salty winter roads. It takes wide tyres for grip in the horrible weather and has clearance for mudguards. It's a thing of beauty.

Singlespeed: one gear

The Pompino has one gear. That's right, just the one gear. In a time when people are buying bikes with more and more gears, why would anyone go the other way and buy a bike with fewer gears? Worse, why would someone buy a fixedwheel bike, where the pedals turn at the same time as the back wheel? Just like those  bikes the track riders use, you can't stop pedalling whilst the bike is in motion.

Well, a singlespeed bike is a pared-down machine, untroubled by shifters and mechanisms and all the moving parts and cables needed for a multi-geared bike. That ought to make maintenance easier - there are fewer parts to maintain. And it's somehow a little purer; the connection between man and machine is a little more direct, more immediate. I like that.

The Pompino can run either fixedwheel or freewheel. Riding fixed means pedalling whenever the bike is in motion. It promotes a smooth pedalling style - you've probably seen those track riders tearing 'round the velodrome in the Olympics. Done properly, fixed wheel riding requires (and develops!) legs of steel. When riding freewheel the rider can at least stop pedalling without being thrown over the handlebars. In either case the single gear means that every ride is a combination of high-resistance muscle building (when climbing hills) and low-resistance aerobic exercise (when descending). And a lot of fun.

A fixedwheel bike is theoretically less attractive to thieves, too. Mostly likely they'll fall off horribly if they try and ride off on one.

Of course, just one gear means choosing the right gear; the right balance between easy enough for the hills, and hard enough for the flat. Choosing the gear ratio was challenging, and I'll keep you posted on how successful my choice was when the bike arrives. I've already picked the bike, tweaked the components and filed the forms.

Now it's just a case of waiting until all the paperwork has been done and my new bike arrives.

Friday, December 10, 2010

An environmental policy worth something

Many hotels have little cards in the bathrooms that talk about saving water by not washing towels every day. The picture below shows one from a Hilton hotel. I'm not singling out Hilton but for the fact that I stayed in one of their hotels recently.

At first glance, the message is good. There is a clear statement identifying the area Hilton want to address: reducing water consumption. Good! Now we know what we're talking about we can do something about it. After all, achieving a meaningful kind of environmentalism starts with understanding what it means to you.

Empty promises

But the stated goal of reducing water consumption is neither measurable nor achievable in any meaningful sense. There are no targets, no commitments, no governance - only a vague aspiration.

Even worse, although the hotel appears to sign-up to this policy, the emphasis to actually do something is all on the guest. The hotel is the facilitator, and it is the guests that must take responsibility for their actions (which, of course, it is). This is good; empowering the guests. But there's no matching commitment from the hotel.

And what about that cheesy, corny phrase "staying at the Hilton will never cost the earth"? A phrase that's been used, in various forms, in so many other places, it's become hackneyed, clich├ęd.

There's also a problem in practice with this policy. In many hotels, and in the Hilton on this occasion, although I never left my towels on the floor, they were still replaced every day. Which reduces the message to little more than lip service. Worse, it's a slap in the face: the hotel has offered something I can participate in, and they're ignoring my requests, my instructions. "Hilton gives you the choice".  And then ignores it.

Ultimately, cards of this type end up being nothing more than a feel-good exercise for hotel and guests. The hotel appears to be considerate about the environment, and may make their guests feel like they're doing a Good Thing - but in fact the hotel does whatever they want to, without any consequence.

What's your definition of environmentalism? How would you make this a more toothy policy, something worth signing up to? Leave a comment below.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

User experience and call centres

Although this blog is mostly concerned with the user experience of websites, that is of course only a part of the whole package. Your business will have any number of touchpoints with your customers, and it's important to give them all attention, as great user experience is a sum of the parts.

The user experience of telephone communications

The other day, I rang Laithwaites (a wine company based in the UK) as I'd had a wine from them that was corked. Unsurprisingly, the phone rang a few times and was picked up by their automated system. To my surprise, however, the recorded voice was vaguely familiar.

[Note: I've paraphrased from memory; you'll get the gist if not the exact words]
"Hi there, this is Tony Laithwaite, in France and on this recording. Er, I'm afraid everyone is busy at the moment, but if you hang on, someone will take your call."
Tony Laithwaite? The founder of the company? On the recorded message? Blimey. I was impressed. I hung on.

The phone rang a few more times before the automated system picked up again.
"Hi, it's Tony again. We're still a bit busy, but - er - it's coming up to Christmas, and hopefully you can find something in the new catalogue that - er - you like. We'll get to you soon. Thanks."
Again the phone rang - and this time it was answered by a human that politely and quickly dealt with my issue and exceeded my expectations.

Full marks to Laithwaites.

What Laithwaites got right

The recorded message is very clever, very appealing. Firstly, it's human. Tony Laithwaite gave his name to his company and is part of the brand; he regularly appears on marketing. He's recognisable. Having him answer the phone is a stroke of genius.

Secondly, the words he speaks seem genuine, unaffected.  The delivery is not polished; there are pauses and um and ers in the message, just like he'd recorded himself. It immediately creates the sense of a human connection, of a relationship between two people, rather than the impersonal recordings on phone systems.

This style of contact sets the tone for the conversation that's about to happen; it's relaxing, it engenders trust. Yes, I think there's a danger here of trying too hard, of trying to be too authentic, and somehow overdoing it, but Laithwaites have got the balance just right, and it really works.

What does your telephone system say about your business? Are you missing the chance to impress your customer whilst they wait to talk to your team?

Related articles:

Monday, December 6, 2010

OBEs for cyclists: music for cycling

Car drivers can keep their ICE. Cyclists have OBEs.

On-Bike Entertainment systems, that is. A means of listening to music whilst on the wheel.

I've seen some impressive systems, including a full boogie-box with massive speaker, on one particular ride from London to Brighton. But for the commuter, something smaller, more discrete, and lighter is appropriate.

My current OBE is a Sony NWZ-8142F paired with a set of Philips sport earphones.

The Sony is a great little device; it's small, lightweight, and doubles as a USB drive. So I can take files to and from the office, if I ever need to, and charge it using any USB port. Putting music on it is as simple as dragging and dropping. There's also an FM radio, which I'll admit I've never used.

It's no longer available, in the way of consumer electronics, but the current Sony NWZB153 is similar.

The Philips earphones have that little ear hook that goes behind each ear and helps keep the earphones in place.  I have slightly strangely shaped ears and struggle to keep regular earphones in place so sport-type earphones are de rigueur for me.

At a push, I could use my phone, but it's easier to tuck the Sony into my sleeve (even using an elastic band to keep it in place) or arm warmers for cable management.

The buttons of the Sony are a tiny bit small, and definitely no use when wearing gloves.  But an OBE should be a set-and-forget; it's not for fiddling with once in the saddle. No, set it up and get on with the ride. And never never never fiddle with your OBE on a climb.

Music for OBEs

Fundamentally, it's whatever works for you and your riding style. In the morning I favour something with a bit more pace, a higher BPM; something to stir the reluctant blood and get the muscles working. At the end of the day, I find the tracks that worked in the morning quite often irritate, and I need something a bit more soothing.

The soundtrack to my summer commute is currently being revised for the cooler, darker months.

What's on your OBE? Which tunes are getting you going in the winter mornings? Leave a comment below.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Environmentalism, Clutter and Smart Thursday

Every Thursday, I wear a suit out of choice rather than necessity, as part of my personal brand of environmentalism. Why? How? I'm glad you asked. Read on.

Environmentalism and Clutter

One of my personal environmental principles is the prevention of clutter; partly by not owning anything I don't regularly use, and also by having nothing that’s too nice to use.

This clutter-prevention principle applies at the front end of ownership, which is a fancy way of saying that I’m careful about what I buy. There's no need to purchase the unnecessary, no need to bring into my house (and life) things I simply don't need; things that will sit on a shelf or in a wardrobe, unused.

In other words, clutter.

As well as strenuously avoiding acquiring clutter (and things I will dispose of the moment I get them, or their contents home – the principle of least packaging), the clutter-prevention principle also applies to what I already have. Every so often, I spend time evaluating whether I still need what I own, and passing it on if I don't; a kind of non-perpetuation of clutter.

Whenever I find something I haven't used for a while, I ask myself why. Is it something I simply don't need any more? Is it time to pass it on? Or is it a reminder of a habit that I want to practice and have somehow slipped? If I can’t answer all those questions satisfactorily, the item in question gets moved on (I pass it on, re-purpose, re-sell, recycle it).

But I also work to find new ways to use what I do have, rather than throw it out.

Which is how Smart Thursday happened.

Smart Thursday

In the last few years, I've been exploring the whole bespoke suit concept. I love the idea of having clothes that were made specifically for me - a kind of perfectly-tailored consumption - there's no waste in producing something to order. I'm also drawn to the notion of having something unique, personal, something I can cherish and keep for years; something crafted, made to last.

During the research period, I'd bought a few suits, some of which are rather nice (and some very nice). But, due to various circumstances and job changes, they’re seldom worn, except for those exceptional occasions like weddings. I had no need to wear a suit to work so these beautiful clothes were hiding in my wardrobe. They had become clutter, or were certainly on the verge of doing so. Applying my own principles meant that - since I didn't use them - I would have to dispose of them.

And yet - I really loved those suits, felt great wearing them. I wasn't quite ready to get rid of them. So I turned the principle on its head. If I started using them, used them regularly, then by definition they were no longer clutter. And I could keep them.

So every Thursday, regardless of what I'm doing, wherever I'm working - yes, when I work from home too - I pick a suit to wear. I enjoy it. I delight in the pleasure of dressing up one day a week. Smart Thursday was born.

Why Thursday? Why not? Perhaps a reaction to the tradition of Dress-Down Friday. Perhaps because it suited (ho ho) the way I arrange my working week. Just because.

Smart Thursday has been going for a year or so. People are used to it. My wife looks forward to it. Certain colleagues navigate their week by it. When I wear a suit on another day, perhaps because I have an important meeting, I see people start and I can practically hear them thinking Is it Thursday already? When I move Smart Thursday to Friday for logistical reasons, people comment.

And you know what? On top of all the feeling good whilst wearing my suit, on top of the pleasure of "dressing up" - on top of all the nice comments I get, every week, from colleagues, about how smart or dapper I look - best of all is that other people have started joining in.

Smart Thursday has spread. Other people are wearing their own seldom-worn smarter clothes, their unused-but-still-loved suits. I'm reducing clutter in other people's lives.

Which is very cool.

Related posts:

Monday, November 29, 2010

My 1000 mile commute (my cycling week)

Last week, I completed 1000 miles of cycle commuting this year. Not by cycling from Land's End to John O'Groats in 10 days (or 27 hours), but by cycling my 11 mile each-way commute over the past 11 months, chipping away at the total, one day at a time.

Despite all my brave words on Monday, even fortified by a cup of coffee and a piece of toast, it was still tough to get out of the house last Wednesday when the cold weather started to dig in. Despite all my planning, the back tyre was flat when I lifted the bike out of the garage in the morning - and me all dressed up and ready to go. Tightening my resolve, I risked it being only a slow flat and pumped it up hard with the track pump (every home should have one).

And off I went.

The morning was cold - not ice-in-the-water-bottle cold, but cold enough that the car windows would require some serious scraping.  Cold enough that the more exposed puddles had a layer of ice on them, that the grass by the roadside was white with hoarfrost. But not so cold that my face was burning, my head feeling the headache of ice-cream brainfreeze. And dry with it so that the roads were not treacherous.

Not so dark, either. When I left the house, the sun was not yet fully up but the day was light, the landscape all whites and pale pastel purples.  The sky, bluer overhead, shot through with clouds.

In the eastern sky, the pre-dawn light on the broken clouds was like the glow on coal embers as they die.  In the western sky, the moon, just off full, still high in the sky above clouds that had their own colour of red-purple, pale.

Then, as the day dawned, a deeper brighter red spread across the sky. I love the way the sun turns colour as it rises; at first that thick red, then orange, turning paler and lighter as it rises, becoming yellow-white in the sky.

That Wednesday, when the sun rose above the distant hedgerow, burning through the spindly denuded fingers of the hedge by the roadside, it was a powerful, hot orange; the colour of a tiger's back, brilliant and fierce and glorious.

And I saw things for the first time, things I've not seen in a thousand miles: across a certain field, beyond the low carpet of mist that still clung to the white ground, behind leafless trees, the sharply pointed triangle of a church steeple silhouetted against the orange sun.

Rounding a bend, a woodpecker darting across the road, body yellow-green, head a flash of scarlet.

The joy on my 1000 mile ride today was not, as I thought it would be, in the triumph of having ridden a thousand miles.  Today the joy was simpler, the pleasure and satisfaction of being out on my bike; the delight of cycling on a cold frosty morning, in the quiet early light, seeing the world through early eyes, seeing wonderful things, feeling alive.

And it doesn't take a thousand miles to feel that; I can have that every time I cycle.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Types of environmentalism

My last couple of posts on the subject of what makes an environmentalist have prompted some strong reactions and comments. Some people hold a belief that there is a precise definition of environmentalist that excludes those people that don't meet the criteria. Or that environmentalism is somehow an either-or concept.

Last week, I wrote about how environmentalism is not binary. This week I want to deal with the many different types of environmentalism.

Types of environmentalist

What makes an environmentalist? Which principles and actions, which morals and ethics, choices and beliefs make a person "environmental"? What intrinsic characteristics do all environmentalists share? What can we point at to measure whether someone is green?

The answer to those questions rather depends where you're standing.

Every environmentalist is concerned with - interested in - the environment. That definition is not limited to the green environment, the natural world; there are social, ethical, financial environments.

Physical environmentalism is perhaps the most obvious kind; the conservation of the wild, green environment; the preservation of natural resources, perhaps through the avoidance of fossil fuels and the associated pollution. Perhaps through some kind of - if not rejection, then amelioration - of the first world lifestyle. This kind of environmentalism is often easy to measure, in terms of carbon emissions, for example, or food miles.

And then there's what might be called social environmentalism - something harder to see, harder to measure. The kind of environmentalism that is concerned with the well-being of the human environment, of the people around us. Corporate-social responsibility, philanthropy: surely these are forms of environmentalism enacted not on the physical stage, but on a social (ethical, moral) stage?

Social environmentalism embraces the everyday around us; the people around us. If I walk past an empty room, I switch the lights off. If I see dirty plates in the kitchen sink, I put them in the dishwasher (and if the dishwasher is full, I put it on). Some people would call that being decent, a kind of moral code (and some people would claim that it's impossible to have without some kind of religion). I regard it as ethical environmentalism.

There are as many different types of environmentalism as there are types of environmentalist. From the dyed-in-the-organic-wool hardy greens, who eschew cars entirely and live in sustainable communities, to those occasional recyclers, environmentalism has broad arms and embraces many practitioners. This does not make it weak or dilute, it makes it all-encompassing and relevant.

Environmentalism can be expressed in a number of ways; whether it's to save money, or conserve natural resources; whether it's philanthropy or a set of ethics .

There are, in other words, many different shades of green.

My type of environmentalism

As for me, I recycle. I choose local food. I limited my carbon usage, my consumption of limited natural resources - and a hundred other different expressions of my own environmentalism. This is my personal shade of green. It might not change the world, not overnight, not on its own. But it changes my world, and it does influence others. I've seen it happen.

Me, I'm mostly happy with my choices (and working on the rest), and comfortable with the fact that they stack with my own personal morals. I understand the choices that I make, and I know that they're reasoned decisions.

Really that's all any of us can ask for, all any of us can strive for. And, actually, that's more than enough.

Related posts:

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book review: The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

Serendipity is a funny old creature. Every now and again something crops up when it's least expected, and it turns out to be just what's needed.

This week, I was planning to write a review of Don Norman's The Design of Everyday Things, something I've been meaning to do for some time now; the book is, after all, widely (and quite rightly) regarded as a classic.

And then I found a review of the book over at Usability Post. It's a good review, I urge you to go read it. I'll wait.

So what can I add? Only my own perspective: this book - quite honestly - changed my outlook. Since reading it, I've thought about it, related to it, pretty much every day. Seriously, I think about it every time I open a door.

One of the central messages of the book is that when technology (whether it's websites, televisions, doors or whatever) doesn't work - when it breaks down and users can't get to grips with it - these situations are rarely, if ever, the fault of the users - but the users generally think it is.

If your website makes users feel that way, they're less likely to visit your site again. No one wants to keep going back to something or somewhere that makes them feel stupid. Part of the purpose of design - and in our case, UX design - is to ensure that our websites and software don't make users feel stupid.

It's not quite that simple, of course, and the book goes into significant detail about the ways that designers can address these issues: introducing constraints to prevent errors from happening; giving users feedback on the actions they take, supporting their cognitive maps and conceptual models. The book is not directly related to web design, but there are enough overlaps to provide substantial food for thought, and readily-applicable tools.

Although in some respects the book feels a little dated, in other respects is still absolutely fresh, still absolutely relevant, perhaps even more relevant, as Dmitry observes.

There are unintended delights in the book, including the gloriously old school black-and-white photographs. And the satisfaction of noticing that the sub-headings of the book are printed so close to the spine that some of those on the left hand pages are unreadable unless one opens the book back on itself (and breaking its spine). A design issue that Don would surely have something to say about.

But these are joys, not nitpicks. Without wishing to sound cheesy, The Design of Everyday Things really did change my perspective on the physical world around me, as well as the computer applications and software that I'm engaged in designing and building. Already a textbook for designers, it's an essential for anyone in the usability arena (UXers, usability professionals, web designers); it should be a requirement for anyone designing and building computer software.

And it wouldn't be out of place on just about any bookshelf. A fascinating, revealing, relevant read.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Not quite 1000 miles (my cycling week)

This week I had hoped to be writing that I'd done 1000 commuting miles on my bike this year.

Unfortunately, due to a combination of bad weather, poor planning, and personal commitments, I remain at 993 miles. I could say "only 993 miles" but I know it's more than many people have cycled. And yes, I also know that it's much, much less than others; a colleague told me they cycled Lands End to John O'Groats (a distance of around 1000 miles, depending on the route) in ten days. It's taken me eleven months to get as far as 993 miles.

But, whether we're comparing apples and oranges or not, the fact remains that I have not yet reached my target; not last week, at any rate, for a variety of excuses and reasons. The reasons I'm comfortable with; the excuses I recognise for what they are.

Excuses and reasons for not cycling to work

Poor planning contributed last week. I had some meetings that required I be smart - smarter than I can be when I cycle in, unless I've left some clothes in the office. This time, I didn't have any appropriate clothes in the offices, so I chose to drive in.

Family commitments played their part too. One day, I had to be somewhere at a certain time and I knew that my chances of managing that would be increased if I drove to work. Another day I had to get up particularly early with my little boy, and I didn't have the energy to do the ride. More excuse than reason, I think.

And there was the weather. When the mist and the fog rolled in last week - fog being one of the two things I really do prefer not to cycle in (the other is snow) - the voice in my head cautioned safety over mileage. I feel that this one too is closer to excuse than reason.

The other factor- I must be honest - is motivation.  Curiously, because I am so close to my goal, I find myself becoming more selective, more picky about the days I cycle in. Knowing that I only have to do one more day's commute to complete my thousand miles, there's a little voice in my head saying "Ah, do it next week."

With the darker mornings and the fog and the cold, it's a little harder to stir my body to action of a morning. I know that once I'm out of the house I'll very quickly be warm and glad of the cycle.  I'll feel that sense of achievement at having got out on the bike, when I might not have - when so many other people have not. I'll enjoy the exercise, the fresh air, the scenery. But it's easier not to cycle, easier to shuffle into the car.

And that's from me, someone that gladly chooses to cycle, someone with a goal; someone that writes about cycling.

Reasons to cycle to work

I do miss cycling into work, though.  It's not just about the feeling of air in my lungs, the sensation of flying.  It's not just about the satisfaction of having started the day with a good spell of exercise, have finished the day with the same; the working hours bookended with a decent blast on the bike.  And, yes, I'll be honest; it's nice to have people regard me with a mixture of disbelief and impressed horror.  You cycled in, today?!

No, the thing I miss the most about cycling is the mental freedom.  When I cycle, I arrive at work breathing hard, my mind buzzing.  I'll park the bike and run to jot down the thoughts and ideas that came to me over the ride.  New ideas for writing, for the joy of cycling, for something that I've seen on the ride in: the sun rising over the water meadows, catching the few red apples that remain on the leafless trees. Work problems solved and resolved; progress made.

When I don't cycle, it's harder to sit down and organise my day - not impossible, just not as easy as it could be. My energy is less, my enthusiasm elsewhere. When I do cycle, I feel like I'm flying through the day. A chap could get used to that sensation.

Finding the motivation to cycle0

This week I'm going to pick the days that I'm cycling in and I'm sticking to them.

I will look at my diary - work and family - and plan the days that will work for me to cycle; I'll clear my chores on the driving days so I can be free to cycle on the other days. I'll look at the weather forecast, but I'll let it guide me rather than dictate my decisions. I'll find my cold weather gear, and my wet weather cycling gear and make sure they're on hand, clean, ready to go. I'll make sure my lights are fully charged.

I'll be armed with reasons, not excuses.

I know that I need to be firm in my resolve otherwise I know that I'll talk myself out of it in the cool dark mornings before I leave the house. So I'll remind myself of all the good reasons to cycle; all the joys and benefits. I'll keep that knowledge with me on the cold dark mornings before dawn and I'll get ready to cycle nonetheless.

And next week I'll be writing about my 1000 miles of cycle commuting.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Environmentalism (still) isn't black and white

My last couple of posts on the subject of what makes an environmentalist have prompted some interesting reactions, especially amongst people who don't believe that environmentalists are allowed to drive large cars (they are). Or that there is somehow some tight, precise definition of environmentalism that doesn't include people that don't meet the criteria (there isn't).

There are two things I'd like to say about this: firstly - and I've said this before - environmentalism is not binary, and secondly there are many different types of environmentalism. I'll deal with the first point this week, and the other point next week.

Here we go.

Environmentalism is not binary

Or, to say it in a slightly less geeky way: environmentalism is a continuum, not an either-or prospect. (Was that less geeky? How about: environmentalism is grey, not black and white.)

How often does a person have to run to be a runner? Is it a one-off prospect, like doing a race once? Does a runner have to run every day? Does being a runner imply deep, life-changing, commitment to running, ordering one's life around running to the exclusion of everything else? Is it something that once-done, never leaves us?

Or is it somewhere in between, somewhere in the greys between the extremes of black and white?

It's not so clear cut, is it? I'd take a stab and say that a runner is someone for whom running is an important, perhaps major, part of their life. But there's a lot of room in that grey, and that's where the question of degree - of shades of grey - comes in. How much of a runner a person is depends on who is defining it. To non-runners, running a marathon - even training for one - seems like a big deal. To professional runners, it probably does not.

Environmentalism, like running, is not black and white. We can't say that someone is an environmentalist because they do one thing, and not another, marking them off against a ludicrous, imaginary checklist. Whether someone is an environmentalist or a runner is a matter of perspective, a question of degree. I'm considered a rabid foaming-at-the-mouth environmentalist by some of my friends and colleagues. And a very light-green just-dipping-my-toe-in-the-water sort by others. And guess what? The same is true for running, or cycling. I cycle more than some - much more. And I cycle less - much, much less - than others.

To say that an environmentalist doesn't - can't - drive large cars is kind of silly.

In one respect, such a statement raises a very interesting point - a point which also reveals the ridiculousness of that kind of statement. It leads to the question of what constitutes a large car; presumably there is some size of engine that it is acceptable to drive and still be considered environmental. But go a single cubic centimetre larger and it's just not compatible with any kind of environmental ethos. All of a person's good works are negated, wiped out, made null and void.

Which notion just doesn't work for me. A cubic centimetre of engine capacity is not a good a measure of environmentalism.

My kind of environmentalism

There's a sort of joke about Al Gore and his film An Inconvenient Truth (which, if you haven't seen, I strongly encourage you to watch. You might not - should not, will not - agree with every point made, but it's food for thought and it may shape your personal decision making and choices). The joke goes something like this: the global warming that Al Gore describes in the film is partly contributed to by all the flying that he's done in the making of the film.

Ho ho.

On the one hand, this is a cheap shot: cheap, easy and obvious. On the other, it's an uncomfortable point: how can one take international long distance flights and still be concerned about matters environmental?

Having read the above, if you haven't got an answer for that, nothing else I write is going to help.

I'm not here to answer for Mr Gore; I can only give my own answers and reasons for my actions; can only try and explain (rather than justify!) my choices. To me, it's about being selective, informed and reasoned. To know why we do these things, make our choices; reasoning through them is neither rationalising them away, nor weakly defending them; it's understanding them, and that's at once less tangible and more powerful.

There's less waste in a reasoned decision than there is in a thoughtless action. And yet to know why we're doing something still doesn't excuse any kind of profligate wastefulness, any more than doing it for a good, informed reason somehow magically removes any impact or consequence of our actions.

Sour green grapes

I guess when people have a go at environmentalists that don't fit their personal model or definition of environmentalism, there's also a kind of high-horse moral concern at work. After all, if a person - especially a public figure - is "guilty" of some kind of transgression (according to the observer), they can't possible tell other people off for doing it. In some kind of twisted reasoning, by not fitting a personal, private definition a public figure somehow permits - sanctions, even - behaviour that doesn't fit that definition. If a person's definition of environmentalist excludes any kind of air travel, yet Al Gore (publicly acknowledged to be an environmentalist) and his film crew can fly around the world, then it becomes okay for everyone to do it.

My flavour of environmentalism doesn't tell other people off for their choices. I've thought long and hard to be satisfied with my decisions; let someone else make their peace with their own mind. I'm certainly not here to think for them.

And let's be honest. Some of this criticism of environmentalists with large, expensive cars is just sour grapes, disguised as a moral crusade. We can do much better than that.

Next time: Shades of green. What type of environmentalist are you?

Related posts:

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Dark patterns 3: exploiting careless users

Harry Brignull describes dark patterns as those website design patterns that use a "solid understanding of human psychology against users".  They're used on websites that are in some way deliberately designed to trick the users. Examples include sneaking products into the online basket, or knowingly obfuscating the intent of dropdowns in order to sell more (more insurance, in one of Harry's examples).

Dark patterns trade on knowledge of user's on-line habits. In an earlier article, I wrote about how dark patterns can be considered acceptable business practice, but that as usability professionals, we must ensure that customers are informed about them. In this article, I'm wondering whether dark patterns successfully exploit users because when online, people are simply more trusting than they ought to be.

Users are not cautious enough when shopping online

People approach shopping on the web quite differently than they do shopping in person; on the web shopping is quick, easy, impersonal.  This remove from the reality of traditional shopping is the great asset of e-commerce, and its great problem too. People turn to the web for convenience, speed, ease of access (and, often, better pricing and choice).  No one should, however, treat buying on the web any more lightly than they do buying person; in both transactions monies are exchanged and contracts are entered into.

Yet we're all guilty of it all; we all use the web for convenience, because we're in a hurry.  That haste inevitably means we're going to be less cautious about the things we do. And we tend to take it less seriously; because the web is a non-physical medium, we tend to think that it has fewer consequences than physically shopping (or signing a contract, or whatever). The fact is that shopping on the web is a non-physical interaction with the same physical consequences (that's the attraction!).  We cannot take e-commerce any more lightly than we would going into a physical store and buying something.

Taking the web seriously; treating it with more respect

In fact, we should all take the web more seriously. We all need to be more cautious with online shopping, not laissez-faire about it. Having purchased goods or services online, it's often harder to get out of our sales contract or return faulty goods. Not because the legal structures are particularly different, but because internet shoppers are several steps removed from the stores that supply the items we buy.  If we want to return goods, we have to use a postal or delivery service (once removed) to get them back to the seller and then - if necessary - chase the returns by email or telephone (twice removed).

There are no fewer consequences to buying online than there are to buying offline. So we all need to read before we click; we need to make the effort to check the question we're answering, what's in our basket, exactly what we're paying for. Those times when we don't - which is often - are what dark patterns capitalise upon.

The phrase caveat emptor - let the buyer beware - has never been more relevant.

Help users to recognise and avoid dark patterns

Good user experience goes beyond avoiding anti-patterns and dark patterns; it actively supports users in areas we know them to be susceptible to manipulation. Educating users about the tricks that might be played upon them is a part of the whole. In addition, we need to consider safeguards that our websites do not accidentally manipulate our users. We need to be cognizant of our users' vulnerabilities and design our websites to limit the effect of those vulnerabilities.

Is any of the website's wording less clear than it could be? Does our helpfulness with suggestions of related products (and our natural drive for upsell) ever cross the line? In providing great online experience, are there off-line processes that, while necessary, are more difficult to use than they might be?

Knowing that users are susceptible to these situations, our job as interaction designers and usability professionals is not to exploit. Rather than using these traits of e-commerce against our users we should be helping them to deal with the consequences.

Understanding our users makes us better equipped to serve them. And that doesn't just mean giving them what they want; it's also about saving them from themselves. We have to ensure that our designs help prevent users falling foul of the various pitfalls that dark patterns exploit. Because we don't want our website to appear on the Dark Patterns website, even if it's by accident rather than design.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Cyclists make more considerate car drivers

There, I've said it.

I have this notion that everyone who drives a car every day should ride a bike, on the roads somewhere, maybe once a month.  I tell you, it'll change the world.

I cycle regularly, and when I'm driving my car, I know from personal experience how vulnerable a cyclist feels on a narrow stretch of road. I know how blind a particular corner is, and that knowledge informs my driving, slows me down; makes me much more likely to anticipate a situation rather than react to one.

I'm not claiming I'm a wonderful driver. But I have the advantage of a different perspective on the road. Riding a bike gives a car driver an additional perspective; the discovery of a slight hill you didn't notice before, and potholes that may cause a cyclist to pull out, or wobble a little. I'm aware of all the considerations that make cycling what it is.

By swapping the bucket seat for the saddle, even once a month, car drivers would gain this perspective, this reminder. They'd develop their sense of the road even further, even deeper. Their driving would get better. They'd benefit from improved road-sense; something that can't be taught, only learned.  How wide to drive, how much of a gap to leave, the time needed to anticipate, understand, react to a situation involving cyclists and other, slower road users.

And maybe those car drivers would get a reminder of the joy of cycling.  Of not being stuck inside a metal-and-glass box on a glorious day. Of a more immediate connection between body and machine.

Drivers make better cyclists

And guess what?  Drivers make more considerate cyclists.

What symmetry!  Let's have everyone that cycles every day drive a car, once a month. I'm not being partisan here, folks.  Getting behind the wheel of a car is a reminder to cyclists. That glimpse of how far down the road to look, of how wide to pass.

Driving a car would bestow an additional perspective upon habitual cyclists, a reminder that there are other people out there. And, possibly, the satisfaction that cycling is, for them, preferable.

All I'm saying is that we can all benefit from seeing the other side of the road. And we could all use more consideration on the roads.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Environmentalism is green, not black and white (or: the environmental chief executive)

Environmentalism is, to coin a phrase, a broad church. Which, if we remove the religious overtones, is to say that environmentalism is a term that we can all interpret in a way that's personal and meaningful to us individually without compromising its meaning or purpose. In order words, we can live environmentalism in the way that works for us.

Philanthropy is a kind of environmentalism

Just the other day, I was talking to a friend that is chairman of a very successful business, someone I would describe as a philanthropist; he is passionate about businesses working to positively affect the communities they exist in. He gives a lot of his time, money and effort to causes that he considers important, and that affect those they touch in a positive manner. It's been a constant throughout his working life, certainly for all the time I've known him. To my mind, his attitude and approach are representative of a kind of social environmentalism.

During our conversation, I mentioned the reaction I often get when I express any kind of environmental interests; it usually starts with a question something like this: how can you say you're an environmentalist when you [insert some choice here]?.

He said that he experienced a similar thing: he is often invited to speak about corporate-social responsibility and during his talk, quite often someone in the audience will ask him how he can be committed to that cause when he drives a big car.

It's true, he does drive an expensive, luxurious car. A very fine car, if you like that sort of thing, with a large engine. An extravagant - to some unnecessary - car.
Sidenote: I could so easily go off on a tangent here about how and why luxury cars have to have large engines. Why aren't there luxurious executive small cars? Seems like a niche in the market to me.
My friend told me that his response to the challenge is always to say that the world is not black and white; not full of absolutes, but of degrees. A person and their ethics are not absolutely one thing or another; they are a happy combination of shades of grey (or green).  He knows what big cars can mean, and he has actively chosen to express himself in this particular area. Having thought about it at some length, he has understood his reasons, and he is comfortable with them.

If that sounds anything like my definition of pragmatic environmentalism, it won't surprise you to know that I completely understand and respect his choices, and the informed, active decision-making involved.

Environmentalism is not black and white

My friend doesn't bother to attempt to justify his decisions, or become defensive about them - he doesn't need to. He has considered his choices and balanced them against his actions to find the definition of social responsibility, of environmentalism, that works for him. He doesn't waste time defending himself. Instead, he gets on with doing what he is passionate about: the things that drive him, and have driven him for years, that make a difference to people. The passion is enough. The knowledge that his actions and choices make a difference is enough. The number of lives he has affected, the good he does is not - will never be - outweighed by the car he chooses to drive.

Our conversation reminded me of the article I wrote recently about shades of green, about the idea that we don't live in a conveniently black-and-white world. We live in a grander, far more subtle, far richer world of shades. Our choices and actions exist in a continuum. When we consider where we exist on the continuum, and are active about our decision making, conscious about our choices, we become free to do the thing we believe in with passion, without distraction for justification.

To be successful environmentalists, we need to be considered about our environmentalism; we must understand our decisions, why we choose to do the things we do, and the boundaries and limits of our decisions. To do so only makes us more effective, not distracted by constant justification and rationalisation. That way we can spend more of our time and effort making a difference rather than wasting them explaining ourselves and our choices.

An informed set of choices; a set of reasoned, well-considered personal ethics. That's what environmentalism means to me. What does it mean to you?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Say goodbye with a smile, not a sulk: designing your unsubscribe process

When users unsubscribe, it doesn't matter how you treat them, right?  After all, they're leaving you, so you no longer need to worry about giving them great experience.

Well, no.

Unsubscribing is a touchpoint with your users

The last point of contact with your users is still a point of contact, another opportunity to ensure that they think of you fondly. Having them unsubscribe should be as easy as having them subscribe.

Just because a user is leaving your email newsletter, it doesn't signal the end of their contact with you.  It must be easy to unsubscribe, easy to the point of being forgettable, to reduce the negative experience (and, hopefully, to increase the likelihood of repeat custom).

Your job is to make the unsubscribe process as easy as possible. Make it as easy as subscribing, easier even.

Unsubscribing the right way

One click and you're gone

Unsubscribing should happen in one click, if possible - and it is usually possible, dependent on the platform you're using (and if not, perhaps you're using the wrong platform).  There's plenty of examples out there.

But don't claim you're something you're not. If you advertise "Click here to unsubscribe", you better mean it, and not "Click here to log in and change your communications preferences".
Don't expect users to log in
Nor remember their username and password.  They'll just get disgruntled and start blocking your emails; which could result in fees for bounces.
Use the right language
Give appropriate feedback, and don't leave the users in doubt about what they've just done.  If they've unsubscribed, tell them so; don't say "You request to unsubscribe has been received" - does that mean it needs to be approved?  Are they going to get another email from you?

I'm confused! Have I unsubscribed, or just requested to be unsubscribed?

When I unsubscribe, I want confirmation that it has happened, not a message telling me that my request has been submitted.  Trust me, when I clicked that link, it was not a request.

Make yours a happy farewell

Trust in your users.  Don't make it hard to unsubscribe.  If they like you, but they're just a bit overloaded with your newsletters, chances are they'll come back.  And if they don't like you, you really don't want to be in the position of sending them messages they don't want every week, month, whenever; that will only breed resentment. And they'll share that resentment with others.

Unsubscribing could be another positive marketing opportunity for your business. Don't miss the chance.

Monday, November 8, 2010

In Pursuit of the Beautiful Cadence

It is generally believed that the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti are, alas, mostly fictional; despite that, occasional eyewitness reports do surface from time to time.

Less suspect are the Northern Lights. A far greater number of people have experienced them; there is considerable hard evidence of their existence. And yet they remain somewhat unpredictable. Although it is possible to give a degree of probability when they might occur, it is by no means possible to guarantee their appearance.

Another such phenomenon is that beautiful cadence that occurs when rider and bike are in singular, joyous harmony; pedalling is perfect, effortless. The bike flies along, eating up the road with smooth, easy leg movements. At that moment, the headwind is transformed into a gentle, sweet breeze that thrills the face, the air is at once warm and cooling, the day is filled with life. Breathing becomes lighter, more like laughing, and the smile stretches wider.

This is a delicious, glorious sensation. And it is also fleeting.

No matter how long the cadence lasts - and sometimes it may be for miles - eventually, something changes. There is a shift in one of the many factors that influence the moment: the elusive, precise combination of gearing, fitness, energy levels, weather, road surface, terrain; all of the conditions that have come together to create the beautiful cadence go their separate ways.

And once more the bike ride is only that: joyful in its own way, but not without effort. The breeze becomes headwind once more; the gearing is slightly too hard (or slightly too easy, since you're spinning not grinding), the road lumpy and gritty where previously it was glossy and flat.

When might the moment return? It is, like the aurora, difficult to predict with confidence. Some days, on the same stretch of road, in the same gear, at the precise moment that the beautiful cadence visited, it's simply absent. At other moments it visits without warning, in unexpected places, at strange times; when the legs are tired and the hills long and the weather miserable, suddenly everything coincides for a few shining pedal strokes and the heart soars with the happy joy of cycling.

Before it vanishes again, slips away beneath the wheels, once more unknowable.

But that's what we're all pursuing, once we've experienced it, every one of us: cycling's beautiful cadence, the feeling of flying.

Friday, November 5, 2010

On The Subject of Provenance (including the Fish Man and the Butcher)

Simply put, provenance is where something came from; its origin. In foodie circles the word is used to describe the information about where a particular animal was reared or what it was fed. It helps understand that it came from decent stock, was well-treated, had a decent life perhaps.

Provenance is important to my personal principles of pragmatic environmentalism too. It's important to me to understand where something I'm buying came from, particularly when it comes to food.

The Fish Man

Every Tuesday, we are visited by the Fish Man. He drives from Grimsby on the east coast of Yorkshire with the fish of the day, and sells it door to door in my local area.

I think the Fish Man is a Very Good Thing.

When I buy from the Fish Man, I know when the fish was landed; I know how far it has travelled. I've no idea (and no practical way of finding out) this information for the fish in the supermarket. Oh, they can tell me when it arrived at the store, but where and when it was landed?  And how far it's travelled since then - to be packed, to be sent to a central distribution point, to the local store? It's unknowable. Every time I visit the store, I have to ask for this information, for every type of fish they offer. Gathering the information is complex and tedious.

With the Fish Man, I know when his fish is landed; firstly because I asked him, and even more fundamentally - because it's built into the system. I don't have to think about it.  I asked once. I don't have to ask him all the time.

And (a real bonus!) when I buy from the Fish Man, I'm buying from someone that genuinely knows and cares about what they're selling - passion being one of the great advantages of small businesses.

By contrast, the friendly lady on the fish counter at the supermarket freely admitted that she didn't like fish.  She may be well-trained and eager, she may have all the certificates for handling food; and she may be cheerful and helpful.  But she just can't compete with the passion and enthusiasm of the Fish Man. And he brings it right to my door.

The Butcher

There are a number of traditional butcher shops near where I live. I count myself very lucky that some of them are very good indeed.

One in particular is a truly fine example of how the trade should be. The shop is a joy; glass-fronted cabinets filled with neat trays of meat, dressed joints, sauces and marinades, and various cooked delicacies - pies, pates, brawn.  It's a shop to inspire, to make the mouth water; a place to browse and plan meals.

Behind the counter, there are little chalkboards naming the breed of the beef or pork on offer, and the farm it came from.  The butcher will gladly answer questions about how long the meat has been hung - how many days matured it is, to use the language of the supermarkets. He knows because he's hung it himself, on the premises.

Again, if I go to the supermarket, this information is in short supply. Without some real effort, and a spot of luck, it's nigh-impossible to answer these questions. With the butcher, it's perhaps marginally harder to discover than it is with the Fish Man, but the discovery is effortless, a joy.

So when people ask me about the time, money and effort I spend shopping from small businesses, rather than the efficiencies of buying everything in a single visit to the supermarket, I ask them where their fish was caught, and how long ago. I enquire after the breed of pig their bacon came from, where their beef was reared.

And then I tell them about the Fish Man and the butcher. And I offer them his number.

That's what provenance means to me.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Websites that disable right-click: stupid, ineffective and just plain wrong

I was unpleasantly surprised this week when I discovered  a website that wilfully disables the web browser's right click menu. This practice used to be quite popular some years ago, but I thought it had died out as both websites and web users matured. Certainly, I hadn't thought about it for ages, until just the other day I clicked the right mouse button and bam!

Not the behaviour I was expecting.
In this case, I was not being a power user, was not using a function intended for expert users; I was using something available to all users: the web browser's context menu.

Sometimes I'm too lazy to move the mouse to my web browser's forward/backward navigation buttons, or to move my hands to the access keys. Instead, I'm in the habit of using the browser's context menu; I right click, then follow up with a key press; navigating back to the previous page.

Or not, in this case. Instead of the expected, learned behaviour I got a crappy little pop-up.

Disabling right-click: why do it?

The reasoning goes something like this.

In many web browsers, the context menu typically includes options to print or refresh the current page, and navigating back to the previous page in the browser's history (or forwards to the next). When right-clicking on an image, the context menu includes the option to save a copy of the image to the user's computer. The thinking goes that by disabling the right click - preventing the browser from displaying the context menu - then the users are prevented from copying images from websites.

Disabling right-click: the truth

Having your website prevent users from using their browser's context menu is pointless, crude and ineffective. Kind of like taking away the f, u, c, and k keys off every keyboard in order to prevent people from typing naughty words, it breaks far more than the issue it's trying to prevent.

It's true that preventing the browser from displaying the context menu does indeed prevent the user from saving the image to disk using the context menu. It does not, however, prevent the user from downloading the image.

In the first place, the user has already downloaded the image; which is to say that the web browser has downloaded it to the user's computer on the user's behalf.  In order to show an image on a web page, that image has to be publicly accessible; the web browser has to be able to locate it and download it in order to display it. If you want your users to see your photographs, they need to be able to download them.

Secondly, it's still possible for users to save a copy of the images. They can view the source of the web page (itself often an option on the context menu, but also available from the browser's menu bar) and take the image URL from there. They can, if the developers have been particularly lazy, use keyboard shortcuts to do the same thing.

So instead of being an effective means of preventing all but the most casual of users from making copies of images, we get something that slaps the user in the face.

Disabling right-click kills user experience

This fact should be self-evident. Taking away the context menu takes away more than just the save image functionality. It takes away something that is not the website's to remove; it breaks the user's software. Worse, it breaks their mental model of web usage; it breaks their interaction with websites. It breaks their trust. That's not something you want your website to be responsible for.

When I can't access a bit of functionality I'm accustomed to using on a piece of software I (ostensibly) own, it's a bit jarring. When the website gives me a kick in the process it's infuriating, enraging.

In the case of the website I visited, the popup with the message "Function Disabled!" is clumsiness of the highest order; the minimum amount of work to slam the piano cover down on the pianist's fingers without explanation. There's no explanation to the user of what or why the "function" has been "disabled"; the kind of message that might suggest to some users that their action has resulted in a function being disabled.

Disabling right-click makes your website look amateurish

Disabling right-click strait-jackets the user for little actual benefit. It's crude and clumsy and does not engender trust. Finding this behaviour on websites still feels awkward, amateurish; anyone with a scrap of sense can get the links to the images and download them anyway.

Worse than appearing amateurish, though, is the fact that it handicaps the user's browser. It removes functionality that's not in the site's remit to remove, it breaks the user's learned interaction with the web.

Disabling right-click must stop

And it's only going to get worse. The trend with recent browsers (Chrome, IE9) is to reduce the standard menu elements. Users will quickly tire of hunting for the browser menubar and will increasingly use the context menu to access functionality. Preventing them from doing so is going to inconvenience and irritate an increasing number of users.

There's no good reason to disable right-click. Any justification is just that; an excuse. The wrong decision.

Treat your users like grown ups; they'll respect you more for it.

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Monday, November 1, 2010

What I Know About Fixedwheel Cycling

Keep pedalling.

You freewheel more than you realise.

Toe clips are a very good idea. They stop your feet slipping off the pedals when the going gets scary, and allow you a get-out when you need it.

Clipless pedals are for the experienced. Beginners need a get out fast.

Brakes are required by law, but may be redundant if you've got solid legs.

Bunny hops up the kerb are tricky.

Keep pedalling.

Unless you have very short cranks, you will ground your pedals from time to time.  Take the corners a bit less aggressively.

Falling off is nigh-inevitable, at first.

Keep pedalling!

Brakes are useful to slow the bike down on big downhills.

Mounting a moving bicycle is a tricky thing to master.

It's possible to stop pedalling if you lock up the back wheel, perhaps by braking very hard. You may experience an epic skid, though.

Don't. Stop. Pedalling.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Straight razors and orange juice: some limits to my environmentalism

I wrote that one of the cornerstones of pragmatic environmentalism is knowing what your limits are; knowing why you're prepared to do some things, and why you're not prepared to do others.

Orange juice

Several years ago, I was focusing on reducing the packaging that I bought and brought home. One of the areas that I knew was ripe for improvement was orange juice; at the time I was buying cartons of orange juice, and at the end of the week I had a couple of cartons that I couldn't recycle.

At that time, I had milk delivered by the milk man, both supporting a local business (with the convenience of to-the-doorstep delivery) and also reducing packaging because of the use of reusable glass bottles. And I noticed that the milk man also delivered apple juice and orange juice, also in the glass bottles that would be collected, washed, and reused.

It seemed like a perfect solution. And it was also one less thing I had to remember to buy, one less thing to spend time, money and effort buying, carrying home, recycling. Great! I made the arrangements and the next Monday morning, along with two bottles of milk, there were two bottles of juice on the doorstep.

Except that the juice wasn't very nice. Not a patch on the fresher stuff that came in non-recyclable (at least, not locally at that time) Tetrapak containers. For a few months I continued to buy juice from the milkman, the reduced packaging principle winning out over taste and flavour (and, frankly, provenance). Until one morning I woke up and realised that I really wasn't enjoying the juice, which made it more of a waste than a benefit: I wasn't spending money, I was wasting it on something I wasn't enjoying - another one of my personal principles.

I had unexpectedly discovered one of the limits to my personal environmentalism. I cancelled the juice order and pondered my next decision.

Straight razors

Around the same sort of time I was looking at buying replacement heads for my razor, and realising how much packaging was involved in them; the cardboard box with all the marketing material on it, the plastic caddy within, and then finally the razor heads themselves, which lasted only a few shaves before they were blunt and needed to be disposed of.

After looking into my options for some time, I took the plunge and bought a straight razor. It's made of metal, so is durable and can be recycled at the end of its life. But that should be many years in the future; because the straight razor can be sharpened over and over again, it will have a long lifetime; it is a thing to last.

On the face of it, this again seemed like an ideal choice; a product with a long lifetime, made from recoverable materials, that would last for years.

The problem was with how hard it was to shave properly with it.

If you've ever seen a film where a character is shaving with a straight razor (and Sweeney Todd springs to mind), the insouciance with which they use those (supposedly) razor-sharp blades is laughable, dragging them across the tender and vulnerable parts of their neck without fear.

My own experiences have always been much more cautious, timid, and far less a close shave than I had got used to with my disposable safety razors. Sometimes I ended up cutting myself into the bargain.

Although I persevered with my razor for some months, I could never get as clean a shave as I could with the disposables. And although I got quite competent - nonchalant even - with the razor sharp blade next to my throat, I never quite got rid of the fear. I love the idea of the straight razor, but I can't handle the practicality of it.

Every now and again I do get out the straight razor and see if I can shave with it, but I've found another of my boundaries, another one of my limits. And that's fine too.

Nowadays, happily, juice is available in Tetrapak-type containers that contain far fewer composite ingredients, and (even better!) the facilities for recycling them locally exist. And I enjoy the juice I buy.

What are the boundaries and limits of your environmentalism? Share your thoughts in the comments.