Expertise

Not Evangelism

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Remove Barriers to Increase Interaction

Research into postal marketing has found that including a postage-paid envelope with a request for information increases response rates.  Interestingly, including a pen or pencil can also increase the number of responses.  It seems is that by removing barriers to responding, the chances of response are increased.

In email communications, where messages vie for attention with tens or even hundreds of others, the need to remove barriers is even more important if you want your users to respond to you.

Remove barriers in internal email...

Luckily, with email, it's easy to include the envelope and the pen; a clickable link to your website (assuming the recipient's preferred email format supports it).  Yet, all too often, I still receive emails that only direct me towards a site with a URL, but do not make that URL a clickable link.  This reduces the likelihood of me visiting that website. I have to open a browser, copy the link from the email, and paste it into the browser - three steps, with an associated waiting time - which makes me less likely to follow the link. It's a psychological barrier.

In internal email, a message typically directs recipients to an area of the company's intranet, perhaps requiring a visit to confirm some procedural matter or review some personal information. By not providing a clickable link, the business will incur a direct and calculable cost; the cost of every user having to find that place on the intranet themselves.  Because it's not immediately easy to do, some people will postpone, and perhaps miss deadlines for response; then there is the cost of chasing them.

Perhaps the sender didn't include the clickable link because of the additional time it would have taken them to do it. This is a false economy. Whatever time the sender saves is paid for by every recipient of the email that must perform the task themselves, perhaps making mistakes and incurring additional delay along the way.

...and external email

In external communications the lack of a clickable link is less immediately measurable but potentially much more costly.  Convenience of interaction will affect the user's experience of your business. It's also something that users have come to expect.

The other day, after placing an order on line, I received an email confirming despatch of my goods, and informing me it was possible to track my order.  Excellent!  All I had to do was visit the companies website.  On examination, the provided (unclickable) URL was to a generic How to Track Your Order page.  This is ridiculous; the company knows my order number, knows the company they have despatched it with, and could very simply provide a personalised clickable link directly to the courier company's website.  This link might not result in direct benefit to them - it's not driving traffic to their website, but to a third party's (the courier company).  But it vastly improves my user experience; it's a missed opportunity to add another layer to my interaction with them.

Although order tracking is the back end of the sales process, and does not generate revenue for your company, it is still part of the user's experience of your website; and it's a differentiator.  If your competitors manage to tie the knot between two services and include a clickable link for parcel tracking - including the envelope and pen, as it were - and you do not, then you will stand out for all the wrong reasons.

Users expect parcel tracking; they expect it to be easy.  Having to hunt around for a URL and - the horror! - type it in themselves (even using copy and paste) is not acceptable.
Sidenote: It's even worse on websites
If not including the envelope in email is foolish, it's utter folly on websites, where links are the currency of the web. Yet I recently visited a website that included the text "Have you seen our other site?" and didn't link to it. I'll deal with this situation (and website) in another article.

Make it easy for your users to interact with you

Remove barriers to interaction with your users; include a clickable link in your email communications, even if that link is to another website. It's all part of your user's experience of interaction with you.

Users are bombarded by a huge number of calls for communication; they expect it to be easy to interact with a company or service. By making it even that tiny bit harder for them to interact with you reduces the chance that they will do so. And if they find it easier with your competitors, then you may find you have fewer and fewer returning users.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Weather Gods and Me (Last Week on the Bike)

Day 1: Mist

Last week, I commuted on the bike three out of four days, for a total of 66 commuting miles, which brings the annual total to just over 800 miles.  On the one hand, I'm a bit disappointed as I had a notional target of doing 1,000 miles by the end of September. On t'other hand, my goal of 1,144 miles over the year (based on commuting by bike an average of one day a week) is well within grasp, particularly if the weather holds.

And that seemed like a Big If on Tuesday, which started damp and misty; the kind of fine mist that clings to leg hairs and treetops.  Visibility was perhaps 300 metres at worst, and throughout the ride I was continually wiping the secondary mist off my glasses. More than once, I watched drops fall from the peak of my helmet.

It was a clear message from the weather gods: we're back from our long summer holiday, autumn is here, and we're ready to play.

Day 2: Besting at the Weather Gods

On Thursday, though, proof positive, if it should be needed (and I do need it from time to time) that it's better to get on the bike and get on with the day rather than worrying about what the weather might do, and so not cycle.  When I left the house, it was great and miserable above, clouds heavy with the promise of more of the rain that had fallen throughout the night.  And, as I took my bike out of the garage, a sudden and particularly heavy downpour left me re-considering my ride, wondering if I should have prepared for the rain a little more.

For all that, it proved to be a good ride. The morning was warm, and very quickly the rain eased and stopped, so that the only wetness was the spray on the roads. My heart was buoyed, lifted by the satisfaction of having somehow cheated the weather gods. They're sneaky, lazy gods, preferring to trick us into not doing something by putting on a bit of a show early on, but without the will to carry out the threat. All sabre-rattling and bluster, it seems, and I was happy to have spotted their game, and not been taken in by it.

I suppose that my cheerfulness must have annoyed them, because that evening, a massive cloudburst just before leaving had me re-considering my position, and Mrs F texting with the offer of a lift. As the hour of departure approached, the skies darkened, the heavens opened, and a deluge was deposited; a proper flood of water. For twenty minutes, intensive rain; and then the storm moved on, southwards, the direction of home.

There was, I must admit, a certain amount of humour in the office at my predicament, equipped as I was with but two wheels and a smallish amount of Lyrca, clearly no match for the rain. Nevertheless, I buckled up my resolve and set off.

And guess what? I didn't get the slightest bit wet. Yes, there was a little spray, a few drops of drizzle, but it wasn't as bad as feared; it was much, much better. I arrived home, if not in actual sunshine, then in that better, proverbial kind of sunshine that exists in the minds of the righteous, and shines from their eyes.

Twice in one day! Twice, the weather gods had tried their tricks and had not caught me out.

Day 3: The Weather Gods give me a Nod, and a Nudge

On Friday morning, though, came a gentle reminder that I am in no fashion master of the weather. There was persistent, penetrating drizzle for the first two miles of the Morning Commute. Not enough to soak, not quite. But enough to assure me that, yes, it's good to get out and ride whatever the weather, and quite often it won't turn out to be as bad as feared. But that there are things not within my control; and that every once in a while I will get properly trounced.

A nod to my performance the day before, indeed, but a very clear message. Enjoy your day, the weather gods were saying. Yes, I had got the better of them yesterday, but I would do well to remember that they have a few tricks up their collective sleeves.

I'll take that. Nine times out of ten is good enough for me. That's still nine victories; nine fewer car journeys; nine more days with a smile on my face.

Yes, I'll happily take that.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Coming Soon on this Blog

Well, it's been a month, and we're still here. Right on schedule, right where we said we'd be.

Coming up in the next month: more of the same; at least three articles a week on the Big Three. Book reviews; free web design consultancy; mathematics.

And a re-design. Nothing earth-shattering ('cos, you know, the earth is where I keep my stuff), but definitely something a bit slicker, a bit less out-of-the-box-Blogger.

Oh, and a change of name. For the blog, not me.

Watch this space. It'll be fun.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

On the Environmentalism of Pens

When was the last time you threw a pen away because it had run out of ink?

Honestly, how many times have you ever done this?  And, by contrast, how many times have you had a pen that was easily half-full of ink, but just wouldn't write, and so you lobbed it into the bin in frustration? Maybe you snapped one in half, its frail plastic body no match for your sour mood. Or perhaps you chewed your way through it so far that it was no longer usable and prematurely ended its life in the trash.

I'd guess that most of us recognise these scenarios, and each one of us has chucked away tens, if not hundreds of pens. That's an awful lot of pens ending up in landfill; not because they've been drained of the last drop of ink, not because they have come to the end of their life having completely fulfilled their intended purpose.

That's quite a waste.

Once valued possessions, pens have become ubiquitous, cheap, and crap. Disposable. We don't value them because they no longer have any value. Little plastic sticks that come with every other charity envelope, that loiter in mounds on every bank counter. They're so readily available that we're habituated to them, and such poor quality that we expect no more.  And why would we, when the vast majority of what we see are generic, cheap, rubbish?

This is a shame. We can do better.

We Need to Learn to Value our Writing Instruments

I want to reclaim some pride in our writing instruments - even that phrase is more pleasant, more elegant than "pen".  I want to enjoy the writing process once again, not scratch around with a misery-inducing plastic ballpoint, half-chewed, uncared for. Perhaps one of the reasons that there's less and less written word is the crappy little tools we have to do it. Perhaps we value writing so little because of the tiny value we place on the instruments we use to write.

It doesn't need to be this way. A reasonable ballpoint pen costs as little as £10, and will write for miles on a refill (according to the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association).  I don't have a clear idea of what thousands of feet of writing looks like (I'd love to find out), but that seems like a pretty decent return for a few quid. And they're more often than not metal rather than plastic (yay!) and a pleasure to write with (if not a joy to write with - that costs a little more).  Add to that the satisfaction of using something completely, of spending out. And reducing waste.

Have you ever heard someone say
"I wouldn't spend that sort of money on a pen; I keep losing them."?
To my mind, this is the precise reason to spend more money on a good pen; the careless person will value them more, and keep close track of them, surely never losing them again.

I have a very nice fountain pen, something I get a visceral pleasure from whenever I pick it up.  It's delightful to hold, to write with.  It's refilled using a piston-fill mechanism; no cartridges to fiddle with (and less waste), just glass jars of ink that last a very long time. It's the first pen I have owned that writes first time, every time, no matter how long it's been since I last used it. And fountain pen ink looks beautiful on the page.

It cost a lost of money. I don't lend it out very often. I know where it is right now.

I also have a small selection of all-metal ballpoint pens that I write with day to day, and a half-wooden one that I'm looking forward to seeing change over time, with me; reflecting the way I hold it, the way I write. I use all of them until they run out of ink, then I replace the cartridge.  At time of writing, this event has occurred perhaps three or four times.

Good pens, like watches, get noticed; they attract attention. A great pen is a statement, a talking point. And they're enduring, something to use for years to come, to treasure, to take pride in.  It's time to reclaim our pride in our writing instruments. Let's choose ones we can take pride in, that will last us years, that don't perpetuate habitual, casual, wanton wastefulness.

I think that's something worth spending a few pounds on.

(And if you answered "lots" to the first question, why aren't you using refillable pens?)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wednesday Bonus: BBC's One Show on Excess Food Packaging

I publish articles every Monday (cycling), Wednesday (user experience) and Friday (pragmatic environmentalism). Other days I might write if I've something particularly burning-important to say.

This evening's episode of BBC's The One Show featured a segment on excess food packaging that, once again, missed the point.

In the piece, a spokeswoman from the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN) argued that the use of plastic packaging was a Good Thing as it helped to prevent food waste. She claimed that "our" buying habits (that is, buying weekly or less frequently, rather than daily) means that we need packaging to keep food fresh until we eat it.

The point she so neatly dodged is that food waste - whilst lamentable and quite avoidable - is both bio-degradable and produced from sources that are entirely renewable.  The vast majority of food packaging, by contrast, is plastic-based; derived from oil and neither bio-degradable nor renewable.

In fact, food waste is quite often perpetuated by the supermarket habit of packaging food into "conveniently-sized" portions that suit their transport and shelf space arrangements rather than the needs of customers.

User Experience is About Layers

What Makes a Great Experience?

What makes for a great meal out? Or, to frame the question a little more specifically, a great dining experience?

Think of the last really enjoyable meal you went out for; the last really memorable time. What made it so great? There's the food and drink, obviously, but there's also an awful lot more. Was your experience affected by the atmosphere, the surroundings, the ambience? How about the company at your table, your fellow diners?

How easy was the restaurant to find? Was there good parking? How were you greeted? Welcomed? Seated? What was the dress code? Did you feel out of place? At ease? Welcome? Relaxed?

Did you like the way the tables were set? The cutlery, the glassware? Were the napkins paper or cloth? Paper, polyester or cotton?

Were the staff courteous when you asked questions? Helpful? Attentive to your needs? Was service timely?

What about cleanliness? Were there any marks on the wine glasses, on the tablecloths, the cutlery? How were the toilets/restrooms? The bar?

And what of the food? Did you like the presentation, the flavours, the quantity, the choice, the flavour? Or perhaps the seasonality of it? The details about where it was sourced?

And then there's the price...

Experiences are Built of Layers

In short (too late?), the dining experience - like any user experience (whether on the web, or in the physical world) - is about layers of detail, about layers of attention to detail (or what Eric Reiss calls a series of interactions). Some of these layers deal with the Big Stuff: the style of food, the topic and content of a website. We might relate these to the structure, scope and strategy elements of a website.

Other layers are much finer, and it's these layers that make the difference between a good experience and a great experience. These are what users notice when everything else is working well.

In a restaurant, some diners will immediately notice what to others are irrelevant details, like the thickness of napkins. Others will be more concerned with the quantity of the food.

Similarly, some website users will notice spelling mistakes, colour scheme or fonts more readily than others. Users are quick to notice those aspects of the experience that are specific to their own needs or interest; perhaps they have particularly large (or small) monitors, and so suffer from a fixed layout, or awkward navigation. Other users will have particular requirements, whether they be dietary or accessibility.

The fact is that all of the layers, no matter how fine, how seemingly trivial, contribute to the user experience.

As users become more sophisticated, the more they notice the finer layers; and all too often these are the layers that get ignored by designers and developers because they're too trivial, not important enough to spend time getting right. Sadly, they're often among the easier things to get right.

The difference between good and great is in the fine layers. After all, no one complains about correct spelling.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Move from Summer to Autumn

After the recent Mechanical, I only got the bike back from the LBS in time for one day's commute, last Friday. And what a ride! Shifting was a dream; smooth and precise on the new rear mech, cassette and chain. The newly-replaced brakes were sharper, more responsive - the whole bike feeling restored, like new.

And what a morning for a bike ride: cool (8 degrees Celsius) but not yet that autumnal crisp that comes with the colder days; the morning sunny, the air still. It was the kind of day for flying along in that beautiful cadence, where the legs are moving easily and effortlessly, turning the wheels, speeding the bike along. The kind of day that was made for cycling. A glorious ride, in both directions. The evening was warm enough that I didn't need my jacket, a pleasant reward for making the effort in the morning.

These are the days to seize at this time of year, before the long dark days of battle begin; the battle against the little voice that suggests it's too cold, too wet, too dark to cycle. This is the battle that is fought every dreary morning through the next few months, and such bright days are welcome respite, a reminder of all the good and great reasons to cycle. These are the memories I keep in stock, and draw on those darker days to come.

Despite the sunshine, though, I did feel the need for my now very battered and grimy Altura NightVision Waterproof Jacket, to keep the chill of the wind off at the start of the day. And because I've just cut my hair again, I added a skull cap below my helmet - adding more welcome warmth. Happily the morning wasn't so cold that I experienced the fierce pain of the ice cream headache as I cruised down the hill at the start of the Morning Commute.

Even so, I guess this ride marks the transition from the summer wardrobe to the spring/autumn wardrobe, the need to switch to longer gloves, a waterproof jacket; the need to add those extra layers against the autumnal weather.

Cycle Commuting: What to Wear

Because my commute is relatively short (just 20km each way, around 11.75 miles), and the terrain not particularly challenging, I have no need of particularly specialist clothes for cycle commuting. But I am convinced of the benefits of having cycle-specific clothing. Sure, some people are happy to wear their workday clothes on the bike, but I don't like the idea of arriving grubby and wet if the weather's a bit miserable. I like the option to push hard if I feel like it on that ride, without arriving sweaty and smelly. And I like avoiding the excuse not to ride if the weather looks a bit questionable; just the chance of rain, and the thought of spending a miserable day in wet clothes would be enough to put me off. By wearing dedicated clothes (and keeping my workday clothes in a waterproof dry bag), I remove one more excuse not to take the bike to work.

My summer wardrobe, then, looks like this:
For my spring and autumn commute, I add my Altura NightVision Jacket as my waterproof and windproof layer to keep me warm and if need be, dry; I have waterproof leggings that I'll keep handy, and I choose gloves that have fingers.

In the very cold weather that winter sometimes brings, I can survive quite happily with a merino wool base layer underneath my jersey, and my Altura NightVision Waterproof Gloves are so toasty warm that my hands are positively glowing by the end of the ride. A Gortex skull cap keeps the water and wind off my head, and a pair of SealSkinz waterproof socks guard against wet feet.

Nothing fancy or expensive here, then; solid, reliable kit for a year of cycle commuting.

Friday, September 17, 2010

What Pragmatic Environmentalism Means to Me Part 2 - PE in Practice

In Part 1 of this article, I gave my definition of pragmatic environmentalism, and what it means to be a pragmatic environmentalist.  In this article, I'll focus on the practical application of PE as it works for me. These are my choices; clearly, they may not work for you in exactly this way, and nor am I attempting to convince you to slavishly follow my decisions. These are my Right Choices, and they work for me. Your choices are the ones that will work for you.

As we saw in Part 1, PE is about finding the Right Choice for You, for your situation, and about acknowledging that there is no absolute Perfect Right Choice for everyone.

The aim of this article, then, is to explore some of the decision making I've done in constructing my own PE manifesto. Some of these decisions have aesthetic benefits as much as anything else, showing (if not proving) that environmentalism can have its own chic.

Applying pragmatic environmentalism to you life requires a contingency plan; some thought about graceful degradation - knowing your primary options, and then your outs.  Such as: if you just have to buy more than you can carry, what's better than just grabbing a store's plastic carrier bag? What's Plan B for that situation?

Here, then are a selection of my personal principles. I'll be covering them in more detail in an upcoming article. Now, some of these are macro, and some micro.

Principle: Prefer unpackaged products

Fundamentally, this principle boils down to not bringing crap (packaging) into the house; crap I'm going to have to spend time & effort throwing out (or recycling). It's particularly relevant to pre-packaged fruit and vegetables; not only do these often come in shrink wrap and protective trays, and all manner of other things for my convenience, but they're also often a lot more expensive than their unpackaged cousins. I recall comparing the loose broccoli with the shrink wrapped broccoli at a major supermarket, and discovering that the shrink wrap had somehow tripled the price.

Secondary options:
If a version of a product is not available without packaging - and certain things (such as liquids) are pretty hard to sell without some form of container - I'll choose the least packaged, then the one in already-recycled packaging, then the product whose packaging I can recycle locally (preferring paper and glass before plastic, and types 1, 2, 3 plastic if there's really no other option).

Principle: Prefer reusable and repairable over disposable

For me, the grand advantage of reusable products is that they're not going into the waste stream. And I think reusable products make so much more sense considering the time and effort I might spend shopping for replacements for disposables.

Choosing products for reuse often means I can pick quality, artisan-made, heritage products that will last a lifetime; things I can form a lasting relationship with, and that will take on their own personality over time. I include clothes and shoes in this category: I have a few pairs of shoes that are good quality, repairable (and British made!), and also a bespoke suit. At the other end of the scale, I have a refillable fountain pen that I plan to use for the rest of my life. I'm also teaching myself to shave with my straight razor, rather than using disposable safety razors.

Principle: Prefer solids over liquids

I choose soaps and washing powders over shower gels, liquid soaps, and laundry liquids, because the latter products are all largely water. I'm effectively paying for water, and the packaging it requires, to come into my home; something I already pay the water company for.

I'd far rather buy a solid product, such as soap, which also requires less packaging (and certainly less plastic packaging), and which contains less of something I already have in my home.

Secondary options:
Concentrated products (that can be diluted with water from the tap).

Principle: Food - seasonal first, local second; and FairTrade where not local

Although, let's be honest; local usually means the same as seasonal, at least for fruit and vegetables. But if I can't get something locally - within a smallish number of miles, at any rate - I'm happy for it to be grown in Britain, in the current season.

Equally I prefer to buy my meat, eggs and such like from local producers; there's a great satisfaction in knowing that an animal was reared locally, and that my money is going straight back into the local economy, undiluted by big business, transport costs and so forth.

So, for instance, I buy asparagus only when I can get British asparagus - never from Peru (which happens to be tasteless).

I do buy bananas from time to time, and coffee; but I choose FairTrade products. If I can't find FairTrade, I'll do without.

Principle: Decline plastic bags

I find it profligate, wantonly wasteful, to collect something, use it once, and throw it away.  I would far rather reuse.  And if I am reusing, given that I'm going to be using the thing for a while, I want to like it.  Want to enjoy it, feel proud of it.  I'm not going to choose a plastic carrier bag for that purpose.

So I decline carrier bags when I've only got a few things to carry (after all, I have pockets).  I don't double wrap items (decent bags don't need double wrapping; everything else is well-sealed).  I've broken the habit of helping myself to a carrier bag - that short term helpfulness that has a cost in the longer term.  I've made that decision a point of principle, I've considered it; that's my Perfect Right Choice.

Secondary options:
If I'm buying more than I can carry (possibly due to bad planning), then I'll look for a cardboard box that I know I'll recycle when I'm done with it.  And only if I can't find one will I resort to buying a Bag for Life, as they're generally better quality (and inexpensive).

What about you?

I hope these principles have been an illustration of how PE thoughtfully applies to my life; I'll expand on them  (and more) in detail in a future article.

What principles are part of your PE manifesto? I'm fascinated to hear about them.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dark Patterns and Professional Ethics

In some industries, professional organisations award a chartered status that recognises an individual's professional competence and credentials. This status is typically awarded on the basis of a number of years of experience, and an assessment of professionalism. Many contain some ethical element; a formal code of conduct, for instance. For some industries, in particular the older professions such as accountancy and surveying, achieving chartered status is not just a significant milestone in one's career, it is a requirement for progression in the industry; an expected component of career progression.

BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT (formerly known as British Computer Society), recognises chartered IT professionals on a similar basis, but in our industry it is less of a requirement for career progression than in other professions. Although I know of a few friends and colleagues that have achieved their charter (and jolly well done them), my experience is that becoming chartered is the exception rather than the rule. In some senses, this reflects the relatively young nature of our industry, as much as the rapidly changing disciplines that form our profession. But I think it's a shame that we don't - not yet, at any rate - formally expect such high standards of our profession.

It hardly needs to be said that this situation doesn't preclude us from conducting ourselves in a professional manner, of course, and I have worked with a great number of colleagues that have tremendous integrity. Indeed,  I think there's certain levels of professionalism required or expected from us, including sometimes standing up to our clients.

At the UX Brighton 2010 conference on Monday, Harry Brignull gave a presentation on Dark Patterns, where he identified the kind of dirty tricks sometimes seen on websites, such as:
  • "helpfully" selecting default options on radio groups that may not be beneficial to the user
  • sneak into basket - adding items to a user's basket unasked
  • anti-scan trick questions - deliberately obscuring the meaning and intent of an input field, such as disguising an opt-out as a nationality question.
You can read more about Harry's expanding collection of Dark Patterns on the http://darkpatterns.org/ website.

At the end of his talk, Harry discussed whether the designers of these pages knowingly and deliberately used these techniques, and raised the question of whether they should have exercised some code of ethics to avoid this behaviour. In other words, should the designers and usability professionals have said No to their client, and declined to participate in such unethical behaviour?

I've been thinking about this question, and trying to put myself into the situation of the designers and developers in these cases. On the one hand, I hope that I would stand up for what I consider to be right; champion the ethical course, according to my own personal code of conduct. I would certainly like to believe that if I were in the situation of being employed to use these dirty tricks, I would have argued against them with my employer or client.

Am I being naive? In the current economic climate, a job is a job, and it would take a strong, self-confident (not to say financially solvent) individual to walk away from a project that required them to work in a manner that didn't sit right with their ethics. I'm sure that many people, perhaps the more junior members of the team, or those with families and dependants, would find it more prudent to put their ethical concerns to one side in preference to losing their income. It comes down to an individual's personal situation.

Would membership of a professional body help in this scenario; would chartered status pull any weight with the client? Or would it take something as heavy-handed as regulation to prevent these techniques from being used, and so avoid putting our professionals in the difficult position of choosing ethics over income?

What Dark Patterns have you seen on the web? And, as a UX professional, what ethical stance would you take on this subject? How would you balance your financial needs with your professional ethics? Leave your comments below.


Monday, September 13, 2010

The Soundtrack to my Summer Commute

I have been Without Bike this week, as my main bike is still in the LBS after last week's Mechanical (and my MTB is currently awaiting a new chain) so instead of riding, I've been thinking about riding, and considering my cycling plans for the autumn and winter. Last week I checked over my autumn and winter wardrobe; this week I've been reviewing my commute playlist; the music that's been getting me to and from work through the summer.

It's surprisingly tricky to pick music for cycling; some tracks that play really well at home or in the office just don't translate to the commute. Perhaps it's the quality of my on-bike entertainment system, or the noisy environment. I was also quietly surprised to discover that the Morning Commute requires different music to the Evening Commute (although I suppose it's obvious that the morning will require something with a bit more lift). Either way, the playlist below - the summer soundtrack for my Morning Commute -  has taken a bit of trial and error.

My commute is about 40 minutes on a good day, and if I listen to the following tracks in the order given, I usually get to the punchy stuff as I hit the hills, and arrive in time to listen to the plinky-plinky intro to Florence's Dog Days as I coast into the office. I absolutely adore this track; I still remember the first time I ever heard it, back in January 2008, and how blown away I was by it. I still am, and it plays really well towards the end of a ride. Lovely.

There's a couple of "optional" tracks in there, that I might skip over depending on my mood, energy levels or the weather conditions. But they're all great morning tracks; lifting my mood and getting the reluctant blood pumping.

Nerina Pallot, Fires
  • Idaho (a great getting-going track)
  • Learning to Breathe
Amy Macdonald, A Curious Thing
  • Don't Tell Me That It's Over
  • Spark
  • An Ordinary Life
  • Next Big Thing
Arcade Fire, Funeral
  • Neighborhood #2 (La├»ka)
  • Rebellion (Lies)
I'm not sure that Arcade Fire's rich instrumentation is suited to the noisy environment of a bike ride, but Rebellion is a fantastic first track of the day:
Sleeping is giving in, no matter what the time isSleeping is giving in, so lift those heavy eyelids
DMX, Grand Champ
  • X Gon' Give It To Ya (woof! woof!)
Because, you know, sometimes you just need some rap in your life.
    Emmy The Great, First Love
    • First Love
    • Dylan
    Florence and the Machine, Lungs
    • Dog Days Are Over
    This music has been just about bang-on for the lighter, warmer summer months, but I'm planning a change; something to lift my mood on the greyer days of autumn. I've thinking about adding some Ani DiFrancoin there, which always makes me smile (which makes me pedal harder). Maybe something by The Killers...

    What gets you going on your morning ride? Which tracks help you to get home in the evening? Share your favourites in the comments.

    Friday, September 10, 2010

    What Pragmatic Environmentalism Means to Me Part 1 - My Definition

    When I describe myself as a pragmatic environmentalist, I pretty much immediately get asked what I mean by that.

    For starters, it's a ten-syllable phrase that's in urgent need of a snappy abbreviation.
    (Side note: When I first tried to define these concepts back in 2003, the best I could do was "smart consumption" (just four syllables!); meaning that consumers (you and me) were smart (enlightened) about what they did and how they did it; what they bought (and when) & what they did with it. 
    I grant that this phrase doesn't quite cut it either, so for now we'll go with pragmatic environmentalism, PE for short. If you've any suggestions for something less cumbersome, leave a comment below.)

    Pragmatic Environmentalism: A Personal Definition

    One of the best definitions I've seen comes from the strapline of the (now sadly defunct - at least, no updates since May 2009) pragmatic environmentalist blog:
    "Pragmatic Environmentalism is characterized by clear and well-structured argumentation. A pragmatic environmentalist does not concentrate on never-ending ideological debate but on specific problems and feasible solutions."
    I like this definition; it's succinct and reasonably understandable. I particularly like the first part, about well-structured argumentation. To my mind, this phrase indicates the process of reasoned decision-making, the active choices that are involved. PE isn't about blindly following trends; it requires figuring out what's the right thing for our individual morals and ethos, our particular situation. But - as the second sentence indicates - PE always seeks to do something, rather than getting hung up on finding the perfect Right Thing To Do. The pragmatic environmentalist delights in getting stuck in, rather than getting stuck in the circular debates that lead to nowhere but choice paralysis.

    Pragmatic Environmentalism Celebrates Rather Than Castigates

    I think one of the other important things that pragmatic environmentalism brings is the notion of celebrating the very fact of doing something, of taking a stand, rather than the much more common approach - the easier, lazier option - of doing nothing at all.

    Pragmatic environmentalism is not a binary proposition, not an all-or-nothing lifestyle.  It's not about living a certain way all the time, and beating ourselves up when we (obviously) don't achieve it for some reason. But it is about enlightened best efforts; about knowing why we choose to take some action, as well as acknowledging the limits of that choice, that there will be times when we're not able to do something we normally would.  Pragmatic environmentalism is about celebrating our successes rather than berating ourselves when we slip.

    Perhaps you've heard the phrase: "a lapse is not a relapse", meaning that a single instance of a behaviour does not (and need not) lead to multiple occurrences of that behaviour. The pragmatic environmentalist knows that, every now and then, not everything that could be recycled will get recycled. They don't use these lapses as an excuse not to recycle at all, though; they don't berate and curse themselves for their "failure" on the odd occasion they don't recycle one thing. Instead, they roll with it, and get on with the next time.

    A pragmatic environmentalist knows that every positive action they take is one less negative action: every journey without the car reduces their use of fossil fuels, their carbon emissions; every nappy reused is one less in landfill. They know that the balance of their actions is going to be positive.

    So you might choose to define PE by acknowledging that
    It's better to do something than spend forever worrying about the Right Thing to do (and consequently doing nothing).
    and accept the fact that
    It's okay not to do something if you understand the consequences of your decision, and you've actively participated in the decision making.
    Or, I suppose, you could also say that pragmatic environmentalism is:
    Being true to your own (environmental) principles.
    In order to achieve this, you need to define your environmental principles; you need to understand what you want to do, why certain things are important to you, why others simply do not fit in your life. Weigh your decisions carefully. Be selective. Prioritise. You might research the various options - pragmatically! Try them out for a period of time, and decide - I mean, actively decide - why you're doing some things rather than others.

    Everyone gets to choose what pragmatic environmentalism means to them, to their particular ideals and lifestyle. We all get our own personal definition; a moral choice, a code of conduct. Understanding those choices; accepting that they're often a balance between several conflicting options, the balance that works for us. And then living them, making a real and concrete difference in the ways that we value, that matter to us.

    That's worth ten syllables, I think.

    Next in part 2: Practical Examples of pragmatic environmentalism in practice.

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010

    User Experience Starts Long Before the Front Page

    ...or the front door, even.

    Last weekend, there was an advert in the Sunday Times Travel section - a full page, colour advert - for a company that will fly you 'round less-accessible destinations in Australia in a private plane.  Prices start at over £10,000.  It's a glossy advert, with some nice photography.

    It also contains the non-word "passangers" (the eighth word in the second paragraph).


    Attention to detail?  Perhaps.  But if I'm going to be flying over a country/continent as large as Australia, in a small aircraft, I want to know that I'm doing so with a company that addresses all the small details.  Especially for a five-figure sum.  Per person.

    Some years ago, I requested a brochure from a luxury hotel.  I gave my name and address details, and when the envelope arrived, it was addressed to "Dr Andy Fryer", as I'd put on the contact sheet. Good start.

    Unfortunately, the letter inside was addressed to "Mr Andy Fryer".  Worse, because the envelope had a window - the address was printed on the letter within - I was holding a letter addressed to "Dr Andy Fryer" that, a few lines below, began "Dear Mr Andy Fryer".

    Attention to detail again?  Indeed.  And I've not stayed at that hotel.  Because for the kind of prices that they charge, I expect the attention to detail to be greater than that.

    The point of these (true!) stories is that my user experience with those businesses stopped right there; at the first encounter; in this case, the marketing material.

    A user's experience starts before your front door, before your home page.  And ends long after too; impressed customers will talk about their experience with you years after the fact.

    Monday, September 6, 2010

    Mechanical Problems and Autumnal Clothes

    The last mile or so of my Evening Commute is uphill. In the mornings this makes for a gentle introduction to the day; legs spinning, wind rushing past as I accelerate into the day. In the evening, the gradient is a final push, after which home is a deserved and welcome reward.

    Last Friday, on the start of the gentle uphill, I had what is affectionately known as a Mechanical.

    Coming out of the saddle rather than changing down a gear straight away, I started to exert some power, when I felt and heard the chain slip on the rear sprocket.

    Very shortly thereafter the bike ground to a halt and I dismounted with some haste.

    A quick inspection of the rear wheel revealed that the rear derailleur sticking through wheel itself; the chain had stuck, broken at the split link, and the mech had sheared off at the natural weak point of the derailleur  hanger. The jockey wheel cage was also warped, and the mudguard had folded where the derailleur had caught against the supports.

    In short, and for those less bike-technical, the bike was very definitely not rideable.

    So I slung it over my right shoulder and began the hike home, cleats clicking and clacking on the pavement, grateful that I was so close.

    This incident is the first of its kind, in over 700 miles this year, and in two decades of cycling. Happily, it was a pleasant evening, and a mile walk with my bike on my shoulder was not unpleasant.

    Autumnal Clothes

    With the advent of September, the weather has changed for the cooler; a reminder that it's time to check the autumnal wardrobe is still clean and serviceable after a summer of disuse, replacing anything that needs it before the winter gets going.

    For me, this means dragging out the waterproof jacket and leggings, and making sure the bib shorts still fit. I may swap to my long finger gloves, or keep the mitts on for a little longer.

    It also means checking that my lights are still in working order, and fully charged. With the foggy start last Friday, it's sensible to fit the lights early, and have them on the bike Just In Case. And mudguards need a bit of attention too; there's likely to be more water around, and mudguards will protect both frame and rider from the worst of the filth.

    The good news is that all looks well with the autumnal wardrobe so I'm all set for making the most of my riding through the darkening months before winter.

    Assuming I get the bike repaired in good time.


    Friday, September 3, 2010

    Why Countryfile Missed the Point

    This week, I was going to write about my definition of pragmatic environmentalism, and what it means to be a pragmatic environmentalist. That'll feature next week, now, as on Sunday 29th August 2010, the BBC's episode of Countryfile featured a segment about seasonal food that got me thinking (and spluttering).

    The blurb from the particular segment of the programme is:
    Back in the Spring, John Craven investigated what it really means to eat seasonally and looked at the environmental cost of eating un-seasonally. He asked the question "is it better to eat British food grown in heated greenhouses or to eat food flown in from abroad?" One of the UK's leading experts on ‘carbon cost’ gave John some of the answers.
    This question is one that has troubled me in the past, and I was interested to see how the programme dealt with it. Especially as they mentioned some research from Bangor University, and had Prof Gareth Edwards-Jones lending credence to the programme with some "answers".

    In fact, the segment touched depressingly lightly on a complex topic, was wafer-thin on facts, and drew no conclusions. Indeed, at first glance, the message seemed to be that it's better to buy tomatoes shipped in from Spain than those grown in Britain, and that it's okay to eat beans flown in from Kenya (but only if you've driven to the shops to buy them).

    The segment did, I think, successfully make the point that carbon emissions are only one, rather simplistic measure of the environmental cost of food miles. Although Professor Edwards-Jones made a point about the usage (and lack) of water in Spain, it was not taken anywhere.

    There then followed a short sequence of John Craven meandering through a few minutes of "climate change as opportunity for home-grown exotic fruit and veg" which was utterly ridiculous.

    (I was a bit surprised by the comment on walnuts that "didn't grow in the south of France or Turkey or China". I mean, there's a walnut tree just outside my GP's surgery, here in rural North Wiltshire. Hardly the heart of the Mediterranean climate).

    The piece finished with the following words of wisdom:
    "But for now, it's a choice between sticking to genuinely seasonal British food, or paying the environmental price for the alternatives."
    Which seems like a pretty straightforward choice.

    Genuinely seasonal British food will always get my vote, every damn time.

    For me, it's a trivially simple decision to buy food from the farm around the corner in preference to food of British-but-unknown-provenance. Or to buy from my local butcher, who can tell me which farm the meat is from, rather than to buy from the supermarket counter.

    And I will never, but never, buy beans from Kenya - or produce from abroad that I can buy from Britain (like Canadian cherries, perhaps).

    Related articles:

    Thursday, September 2, 2010

    Thursday Bonus: Summer's Not Over, and The Apostrophe

    I publish articles every Monday (cycling), Wednesday (user experience) and Friday (pragmatic environmentalism). Other days I might write if I've something particularly burning-important to say.
    Today, two nibble-size topics in your bonus mouthful.


    I'm Not Giving up on Summer

    It's been cooler every morning this week; the temperatures dropping from the low-to-mid twenties during the day time to single-figures overnight. Earlier in the week, there was condensation on the cars and windows when I left the house.

    Today, it was again cool; so much so that as I got the bike ready for the Morning Commute, I considered moving to my autumn wardrobe, putting my jacket on.

    In the event, I stayed with the arm warmers and I'm glad that I did. Although my fingers were a little cold at the start of the ride, they soon warmed through enough and I enjoyed the ride.

    UX and the Apostrophe

    Just the other day I received an email entitled "How to Kill Your Brand in One Easy Step", stufffed full of spelling mistakes.

    It took me a moment to realise that it wasn't intended as a cautionary example.

    The way my brain is wired, spelling mistakes tend to leap out at me. I'm not overly precious about spelling mistakes; I do think, however, that in our digital age it's incredibly easy to run automated spelling checks that will find words that are plain non-existent. I also think it's bordering on inexcusable when someone is making a particular point about their brand, and they stumble over such a small detail.

    Another word I see misused a lot is "it's". When used in the possessive, this word does not have an apostrophe - see Wikipedia, for a thorough overview of the topic.

    Today, I was disappointed to see this particular mistake over at the excellent UX Booth, reading about how the UX Booth "celebrates it's guest authors" (my emphasis). But not, apparently, its grammar. This made me sad.









    User experience is about layers of experience; and such an obvious typo - even such a common one - really stands out.

    Wednesday, September 1, 2010

    When Your Client Is Wrong

    Contrary to the old adage, your client is not always right. No matter how "client-focussed" you think your business is, the fact is that you are the expert (that's why they're employing you, after all) and sooner or later, part of your expertise is going to be needed to save your client from themselves. You're going to have to say "No" to your client in a professional manner, without making them feel stupid.

    Your No needs to be reasoned, one that comes with a suggestion for something better - or at the very least, time to have another look at the design to see if there's anything better that can be done.

    For businesses where the client can't do the work themselves, or can't see the workings of the system, this situation is less common; it's rare (but not unheard of) for clients to look at code and take it upon themselves to tell developers how to implement a solution, line by agonising line.

    When it comes to user experience, however, everyone and their mother are users; so everyone has an opinion about the user experience. This too often means that clients can take it upon themselves to identify problems, design solutions, and expect you - as resident UX expert - to rubber-stamp your approval of them.

    Sometimes - not always, but sometimes - your client gets it wrong. And it's your job to tell them so, as nicely as possible.

    Some example scenarios (and how you might say "No" in similar situations) below.

    How it starts

    You get a call from your client, telling you there's a couple of "usability issues" they want to talk through with you. They've had some feedback from users (good) and they've designed some solutions (uh-oh!) that they want you to check and implement (bad).

    The thing is, you realise when you take the meeting (or, more often, when you're called into a meeting halfway through), that the proposed solutions don't work, for one reason or another.

    Example Scenario 1

    Maybe the proposed change moves a navigation button out of the recognisable, familiar navigation area, and into the area used for breadcrumbs and navigation context.
    ("Yes, I see that action button doesn't seem to fit anywhere else, but your users aren't used to looking for completion routes in that area of the screen. Where you're proposing to put it is inconsistent and confusing. Let's have another look at the intent of that screen.")

    Example Scenario 2

    Maybe some text has been added to the screen, instructions to help the first time or occasional user; and that has resulted in a muddled screen that's going to confuse first timers and infuriate regular, expert users. In fact, it turns out that the screen was already quite complex, and adding additional elements to it only makes it more so. Time to go back to the design and consider a different approach.
    ("You're right; it looks a multi-screen process. Perhaps it would be clearer to use a wizard-style step-by-step approach, which expert users can bypass to get to...(a simplified version of) the screen we originally designed.")

    Example Scenario 3

    Or perhaps the solution breaks one of the guiding principles of the design.
    ("Yes, I understand that you want the instructions to stand out, but by covention we've only used red for errors. Using that bold red font introduces a jarring inconsistency. Let's have another look at the colour pallet and see if there's another colour we can use.")

    These examples all identify real problems experienced by real users; they're the result of user testing (very good!) and do need to be resolved. The point here is that the proposed solution is often too reactive; focussed on solving a specific issue at a micro level, for the particular set of test users that identified the problem. And in doing so the fix damages the user experience for the larger set of users. Or the suggested fix breaks established interaction principles, but "it's okay because it's just this one screen, and that's already a bit special anyway".

    In short, whilst they might not realise it, the client is breaking the user experience principles they've signed up to, under the banner of fixing "usability issues". They're effectively picking and choosing; creating exceptions to the design where they see fit. Before you know it, the clear, consistent user experience you've designed and tested is a muddled mess that confuses the whole user community.

    In these situations, it's your job to take the step back and consider the holistic view, and tell your client, honestly, what they need to hear: No. You need to put them back on track, save them from themselves, pull them up from the detail.

    And yes, you might also need to re-consider the user experience design following the user feedback; as Steve Krug says, there really is no substitute for user testing.


    How often do you come up against situations like this? And how do you manage your clients and preserve your professionalism?