Not Evangelism

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.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dark Patterns and Customer Awareness

In website design, the term anti-patterns is used to describe those foot-in-mouth practices that result from laziness, ineptitude or simple mistakes on the part of the designers. They create a bad user experience for no other reason than the designers got it wrong. Anti-patterns serve neither users nor usability practitioners.

By contrast, 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 Harry's example of Trick Questions).

Dark patterns seem to deliberately mislead, or trade on knowledge of user's on-line habits.

What's so wrong with dark patterns?

From one perspective, nothing.

There's no mystery to the concept of upsell; that companies want to sell more of their products. That's simple business. That's good business.

Over at Usability Post, Dmitry Fadeyev has written two articles on the motives for bad design, citing the example of webpages so cluttered with ads and popups that their usability is reduced.  The point he makes is that those webpages are that way not through ineptitude, but through design; knowing that there is revenue to be made from advertising clicks, the website designers have made conscious decisions to include the elements that increase business at the cost of the user's experience.

Dmitry argues that design principles are often deliberately broken (by including attention-grabbing ads, cluttering up the page, for instance), because there are business reasons or benefits to do so. In the second part of his article, he considers a comment from Don Norman's classic Psychology of Everyday Things, where Don cites the example of chairs in a cafeteria made deliberately uncomfortable in order to discourage people from lingering in the cafeteria. Don considers this successful design, as the design criteria - of throughput, essentially, preventing people from staying over long in a space when they ere - were met.

We're familiar with this practice in our physical world. The chairs in MacDonalds are uncomfortable because the business model relies on high volume, rapid turnaround; they don't want people to stay. We're also familiar with marketing practices of opt-out boxes in the small print of application forms, often following opt-in boxes to confuse scan readers.  And yet these practices are tolerated - are in some way acceptable, in their way - because they're known, familiar.

These and other upsell practices, possibly because they are known, are not mysterious; they're in the public domain. We know about them; we're wise to the practices.  Publicising these tactics; informing and educating users about them has made the tactics less sneaky. Or perhaps no less sneaky, but somehow more palatable because they're known, expected, understandable.

Awareness of dark patterns demystifies them

We can achieve the same results for dark patterns. We can defuse dark patterns by revealing them; demystifying them. Once we know what to look for, we can neutralise their more poisonous effects.

This demystification is one of the things that Harry seeks to achieve through his website; to inform users of the practices out there. Because sneaky tactics need to be revealed.  Perhaps that's the only way to do this; to inform people of the tricks that can be got up to on the web.

I'm not advocating these practices. I'm not saying that usability professionals should embrace these principles; in another article, I'll have some things to say about professional ethics. And I'm not saying that we should expect little from our users; but it is, I think, our responsibility as ethical professionals to educate our users to some level.

Because awareness is a good thing. When a user's experience jars because of these bad practices, we should expect them to realise it, and to acknowledge it for what it is: simple business. And it becomes the user's choice to do business with the companies that use these practices.

But let's do our part as usability professionals to ensure that it is an informed decision.

Monday, October 25, 2010

My Cycling Fashion Ethic

My cycling fashion ethic lies somewhere between the gleeful stereotypes of club cyclist and CTC tourist. Somewhere between Lycra team kit and an all-weather kagoul and bike cape. My commute is fairly short, just 20km each way, so I'm never very far from warm and dry. I don't require industrial strength out-all-day cycle tourist's clothing; and I ride alone so I don't need tribal kit; I don't buy into the everything-matches-my-favourite-club/team colours.

I ride a bike

I define myself as someone who rides bikes, rather than a cyclist - although, as with so many things, these definitions exist on a continuum; one person's cyclist is another person's casual biker. And even though I don't consider myself a serious cyclist (whatever that means!), I suspect that other people probably do.

I'm a commuter and day rider, first and foremost, and my primary bike reflects that; dependable and comfortable, a relaxed ride, nothing fancy. I might put aero bars on for a triathlon, but that doesn't make me a speed demon time triallist. And although I've been a fixie rider (and will be again, dammit), I'm so not cool enough for baggies and a courier bag (but I do love my Crumpler Cheesy Disco messenger bag).

Giant SCR 2 2008
I'm sold on the practicality of cycle-specific clothing; not least because it helps keep my work clothes clean and dry. And also because I don't want things getting snagged in my chain, getting torn and dirty and interrupting the smooth joy of that beautiful cadence.

I'm equally convinced of the value of technical clothing, something that will make hot sweaty rides pleasant; and cold, windy slogs bearable. But if I'm popping down the chip shop, I'm happy to use bicycle clips, or tuck my trousers into my socks in a pinch.

"Lycra is a privilege, not a right"

I do wear Lycra. And yes, I like it.

I don't wear team kit, though. I have no major objection except for the vague feeling that it's a bit naff in the same way that I regard the practice of wearing football strip from a premiership team ('though clearly it does work for many many others). I don't chase heroes, I don't wear what the Great Cyclists wear. And I would always feel odd wearing a (replica!) yellow jersey.

A yellow jersey I will wear: Altura Airstream short sleeve jersey
I have yet to find a team kit that I like the look of, that I can imagine myself wearing without feeling embarrassed. I'm not so enamoured of any team that I will buy their home and away kit. If in the future I see a strip I like, and which fits with all of my other stuff, I might consider buying it.

Colour me beautiful

Colourwise, I'm currently about blues and blacks; with maybe a bit of silver or white in there. Over a number of years, I've added to my cycling wardrobe in this colour scheme and it's suited me well. And it happens to match my current steed, which is pleasing.

Helly Hansen's excellent Trail Wizard Tee
I also set a budget on my clothing; less than £50 for jerseys; less than £100 for jackets and helmets. I was happy to find a great helmet in my choice of colours.

Bell Sweep Road Helmet in blue, black and white
So for me it's not about big brands or big names. But...there is my dear old Twin Six water bottle. Twin Six are very cool, I love their ethos. I haven’t yet found the jersey that rings my fashion bell. And they're too cool for me.

Update (January 2011): Turns out I am cool enough to wear Twin Six!

But no matter what they cycling fashion ethic, everyone needs a bit of cool. What's yours?

Friday, October 22, 2010

How Pragmatic Environmentalism Cures Choice Paralysis

Have you ever been in that situation where you're presented with too many options, too much choice? Maybe you're trying to buy a new kettle and the difficulty of balancing all your options to pick the "right" one (or the "best" one) means that you don't do anything at all? Not even blindly grab for the nearest, the shiniest, the easiest option.

Choice paralysis: too many choices prevent action

It used to be straightforward.  We'd look at our choices, say between disposable nappies and reusable nappies, and it would be straightforward to identify which was the Perfect Right Choice.  In the specific example: disposable nappies repeatedly consume resources that could be reused (which is a Bad Thing) and rot (or not) in landfill for years (a Very Bad Thing).  Reusable nappies, as their name suggests, are reusable; they do not consume resources at every turn, they do not go to landfill. Hence reusable nappies are the Perfect Right Choice. Nice and straightforward.

And then someone comes along with an argument about the use of bleach in reusable nappies, and the environmental impact of all that washing every time junior needs a change. Which then brings reusable nappies into question again. We start thinking that perhaps reusable isn't all it's cracked up to be. Maybe disposables are better...

Dilemma!  Which to choose?  Which is the Perfect Right Choice?  With all this information, all these conflicting requirements to balance, the end result is that it's often simply not possible to decide, so we end up stuck, doing nothing for fear of doing more harm. Of not knowing the right thing to do.

Pragmatic environmentalism cures choice paralysis

There's two things you need to know about choice paralysis:
  1. There is no absolute Perfect Right Choice.  Not for everyone. There's only the one that's right for you, for the specific combination of circumstances that define you, your personal circumstance, and your brand of environmentalism.
  2. Doing something about it is almost always better than doing nothing.
The point is this: we have to pick our battles, some of which will be aspirational, financial, philosophical, ethical (meaning: specific to our personal ethos).  And we've got to prioritise them.  Perhaps our specific decision is that renewables are preferable, or that avoiding landfill is more important than energy usage (perhaps because we source your energy from renewable sources).

And yes, there are lifestyle elements here too.  Like access to an energy efficient washing machine, to environmentally-friendly, non-chemically-based washing powders. Like our time and energy to do these things. There are no Environmental Police; no one is going to force us to do them, so it's better that we enjoy them - we're more likely to continue if we do. We're much more likely to stick to our guns if it's something we really, truly believe in, and something that actually fits into our lives.

We can chart a course out of choice paralysis by understanding what our priorities are, what motivates us, what we're prepared to do. And what we're capable of doing. We can take comfort in the fact that we're doing something, and we know why we're doing it.  We understand the decision making; by doing so, we transmute all our excuses into reasons.

This is the foundation of pragmatic environmentalism.

And, you know, perhaps bamboo-based biodegradable disposable nappies are the happy medium that balances personal situation with personal ethics. I can't tell you the answer for you; I can't give you your Perfect Right Choice.

You're the only person that can do that.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

User Experience and the Hair in the Bathroom

Websites are like bathrooms. Seriously, stick with me on this one.

Edit: By happy coincidence, Bathroom Blogfest 2010 coincides with this article.

Design for your users

A friend was having some building work done in his house and was describing how the builders had planned the bathroom just so; they'd laid it out quite cleverly. In particular, the basin was tucked away neatly just behind the door.  But although the design made good use of the space in the room, if the door was opened particularly hard or carelessly, then it would bang into the sink.  My friend wasn't happy with this, as the bathroom was intended for use by his young sons, who would doubtless charge exuberantly into the room, continually slamming the door into the basin.

Although the designers had produced a good solution, it didn't suit the user group it was intended for.

Don't let clutter hide great design

Let's say you want to wash your hands before dinner, but the bathroom you've just walked into is filthy. So much so that the only thing you can see is the dirt: the fingerprints on the mirror, the mess on the countertops, the ring in the bathtub. It's distracting enough that you leave the bathroom without washing your hands, without noticing anything else about the room.  It doesn't matter how elegant the basin or the taps, how well laid out the room (nor how poorly designed); the clutter stops you doing what you went there to do.

It's possible to address all of these things, of course; they're obvious and they're simple, trivial to fix. And once they're done, it's possible to see the things beyond the filth, the good and the bad: the shape of the shower, or the handle on the bathroom that knocks against the cupboard.  The fact that the basin is so close to the bath that you knock your elbows and knees on it when you turn 'round. The taps that aren't clearly labelled so you're not sure which is hot and which is cold.

And those can be fixed too, and the design made slick and clever and appropriate. But even after all the time and effort, there will still be times when people walk into the bathroom and the first - the only - thing they see is the hair on the soap.

There's a hair on the soap

On the one hand, the hair on the soap is the sign of a great job; all other problems addressed, all the other issues resolved. Until the mirror is clean, few people are going to notice the hair on the soap.

But when everything else is just right, the hair on the soap - that trivial, obvious, tiny thing - is going to stand out, jump out, get noticed.  It's the smallest thing and it's going to be talked about. A lot.

As simple and small are seemingly trivial as it appears, the hair on the soap is also important. The hair is not the most important part of the experience, unless everything else is right. But it's part of the many layers that contribute to the great user experience.  No matter how fabulous the bathroom, the hair on the soap needs fixing.

How's your bathroom?

What are the design elements of your website that, although clever, just don't work for your user community? What's the clutter that's preventing your users from doing what they came to your site to do? What are the hairs in the bathroom of your website?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Lights for Cycle Commuters

As I noted the other week in my article on Wet Weather Gear for Cycle Commuters, articles about winter clothes, lights and waterproofs are common currency in the magazines at the moment, as every cyclist prepares to buckle down for autumn and winter.

Here, then, is my second contribution on the subject: some thoughts on lights for cycle commuting.

Front lights

Cycle headlamps serve two purposes: both to be seen, and to see. The first so that oncoming or joining traffic can see the cyclist - many accidents happen when a car pulls out of a junction into the path of a cyclist without a front light. And the second so that the cyclist doesn't end up in a hedge they didn't see.

The type of cycling you do, or plan to do, will affect your choice of light. I cycled in towns for many years, never far from the orange glow of street lights, and needed a lamp that was visible to other road users more than I needed one to see by. When I took the same light on a ride along an unlit tow path, I quickly realised its deficiencies.

My current commute is on unlit country roads, so I have need of a light that will light my way as well as announce my presence to other road users. For the conditions particular to my daily ride, the latter is of secondary importance; I am well-equipped with reflectives, and high-visibility clothes, such that if a light is shone on me, I will be seen.

By contrast, the unfenced roads and deep ditches of the country lanes, combined with sweeping bends, means that I need a light that will enable me to find my way home safely. Even in the pale dawn at this time of year, before the full dark, it's often easy to miss bumps and dips in the road that will throw the bike and the steering if I ride them wrong. And the roadside ditches are deep enough to lose a small elephant in.

For the past 2 or 3 years, I've been using a NiteRider MiNewt, which has proven to be excellent.  I bought it one morning after a particularly gruesome commute in misty darkness, using a halogen lamp that gave off so little light I quite scared myself.  I went straight out and bought the best light my pocket would allow. It's not cheap, but I think it's quite reasonable compared to my safety.

The exact model is no longer available, but NiteRider now have a wide range from the Niterider Minewt Mini 2010 USB Light System [EvansCRC] to the MiNext 700 Dual. I must admit, I love this little light, and would buy it again. It's powerfully bright, with a full and half-power option, and a burn time of around 1.5 hours at full whack (two commutes for me), double that on half-power. There's also a flashing mode that is technically illegal in the UK if fitted to the bike. It's no use to my commute, so I've not used it.

The NiteRider has an indicator light that glows blue in normal usage and red to indicate that there's 15% charge left, which in practice has proved to be around 20 minutes of light, depending on the temperature (remembering that colder weather affects batteries adversely).

I also have a Smart front light as a secondary backup. It's running on alkalines, which are less susceptible to the cold than rechargeables. It's not going to light my way, but it will help me be seen.

Rear lights

My KnightRider rear light has last well over a decade. I don't think it's available any more, but when it was first sold, it was the only LED rear light that met the UK's legal requirements for rear cycle lights.  Last year I treated it to replacement batteries.

I recently bought a Smart Rear Light [WiggleCRCEvans] that I bought because it has spare brackets so I can move it quickly between my other bikes.

I also have a Skully Ultra Bright Mirco LED Bike Light (black body, red LEDs) mounted on my helmet. As it's on me, not on the bike, I can run it flashing, which is another point of attraction/attention to drivers approaching from behind. And it looks cool, which is a bonus.

Batteries - alkalines and rechargeables

My NiteRider headlamp uses a rechargeable battery, and I prefer to charge them in the office so that they're fully-charged for my ride home; that's the ride heading into gathering darkness.  The NiteRider's 4-6 hour charge time means I can be certain that my lamp is fully charged for the ride home (and ride to work the next morning). In the mornings, I know that it is getting progressively lighter and - at a pinch - I can reduce the output - perhaps through the lighted areas - and conserve power for the darker parts of the ride.

Other considerations

My aim is to leave my lights that stay on the bike; so removing the excuse/chance of not using them. I'd much rather have them and not need them than need them and note have them. Both lights satisfy this requirement well, and I can charge the NiteRider without removing it from the bike (as long as I park it near a wall socket; later models can be charged using a USB cable).

At worst, to remove the battery pack is a single velcro band (and unplugging the cable to the lamp itself) and the lamp is secured using a rubber O-ring. I can move it to another bike in under a minute.


I should add that I have all legally required reflectors on my bike; at front and rear, and on the pedals (I have an insert into my SPDs). I'm not sure the police would necessarily stop a cyclist that didn't have the legally required reflectors, but if it ever came to an insurance claim, I don't want them to be able to wriggle out of settling the claim because of some trivial matter like a small reflector.

I've long thought that bike lights are a little like helmets in that it's a false economy to buy the cheapest one you can find. It's always a balance between spending the most you can and getting the best protection available. Equally, a good light removes a layer of worry, gives a certain confidence, in the same way that a good helmet does.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Uluru, Language, and Pragmatic Environmentalism

One morning in 2007, pretty much three years ago next week, I was walking 'round Uluru talking to an American woman about punctuation. I mean, there I was, in complete awe of the Rock, dusty and glorious in the thin light not long after dawn. And I was talking about language.

Our Australian guide had just made a comment about rainbow bee eaters, and I had wondered aloud if they were things that ate rainbow-coloured bees, or if they were rainbow-coloured things that ate bees.

The guide told me, straight-faced, that it was the latter.

Oh, I said. I must have got my hyphen in the wrong place.

There was a moment of silence.

We contemplated the Rock, and continued our walk. One of the group fell in step alongside me and asked if I was a writer.

I was surprised. Flattered. Puzzled. I asked her what she meant.

It turned out she was an editor on the travel desk of the New York Times. She'd heard my comment about hyphens and assumed I was a writer. I told her I was not. Not then, not in the way she meant.

And then we had a chat about words and language as the sun rose over Uluru, the most astonishing sight I've seen, absolutely breath-taking.

At some point in the conversation, we were talking about travel, and I commented that I thought books titled things like "1001 places to see before you die" were a bit unnecessary, because the "before you die" bit was redundant. I mean, there's not a lot of visiting after the Inevitable Event.

My new friend commented that there was a poetry to that title; a rhythm, a romance, and sometimes precision and grammar and brevity weren't all that was needed. Sometimes there needed to be a little sparkle.

I considered this. I understood what she meant. I nodded.

Because it's true. Sometimes we need the little excesses of language to give us a little poetry. Sometimes brevity and precision aren't the be-all and end-all.

The thing is, I really don't like the whole "It's not easy being green" slogan. There was a BBC TV show of the same name, and the Guardian newspaper has a whole section devoted to it on their website.

Yeah, I can see that it's a catchy little title; there's a rhythm and a poetry to it. There's a rightness to the phrase, a sonority, that strikes a chord. I recognise that.

But it's still damaging.

It's so easy to be green

This kind of language is neither positive nor supportive; it's saying that environmentalism is hard, and that's going to discourage more people than it encourages. Surely we should be celebrating the elegant and personal simplicity of "being green".

I applaud shows and articles that demystify environmentalism, that make it accessible and acceptable and move it farther into the public consciousness. That encourage us to aspire to greater efforts, that ask us to question our choices. But let's not make it sound harder than it is.

Because it is easy being green. It's as easy as deciding to recycle, and doing it. It's as easy as deciding what your own definition of green is, and acting it, living it. It doesn't have to involve buying a farm or living in the woods, or installing composting toilets. It's whatever works for you.

That's the whole point of pragmatic environmentalism; it's finding the Perfect Right Choice for you.

Uluru, by the way, is majestic and poetic and unspeakably magnificent. If you ever have the chance, go take a look.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Free website UX design consultancy:

There is a trend amongst some UX practitioners to highlight certain websites for their bad practices or poor user experiences. There’s often a certain amount of amusement derived from the website under examination. This is particularly prevalent at conferences and in presentations.

Not here. Every so often, I'll be critically reviewing websites and provide feedback on their user experience. There’s no user testing data here, just analytical observations and some generalised best practice. You could even call it free website UX design consultancy.

Today we're looking at

Look and feel: Homepage

The picture below shows the home page of the website at 1024x768 resolution with standard, fairly minimal browser chrome (IE8, full screen).

Homepage at 1024x768
Homepage screen space is always at a premium, and it needs to be made to work. At this resolution the ratio of navigation elements to content is too far in favour of anything but content. The page is cluttered, with more space given over to navigation and instructions than to content. Even at 1280x1024 (below), the content ratio is too small.

Homepage at 1280x1024
In addition, the homepage disregards at least seven of the Nielsen-Norman Group's Design Guidelines for Homepage Usability - seven relevant ones, I might add.

The information text at the top of the screen is too busy and will probably not be read. This text - including the address of the company, something of little use to a website user - would be better in a footer or in an information or About page; on the homepage they're just so much clutter.

The two images in either top corner look like adverts and likely will be assumed to be such; research has shown that users tend to associate images in these areas with adverts and ignore them.

Then there are three navigation bars; those below the information text, the unmissable purple stripe below those, and the vertical sidebar on the left of the screen. They each display links in different ways; some with visual cues (colour, underlined text, on-hover highlighting) and some without. The left-hand navigation uses none of these cues. It's arguable that the left hand vertical menu is obviously so, but on the other side of the page the View basket links are not underlined, where others are. Consistency is required to reassure users.

The left-hand navigation menu continues for two pages and is then repeated, duplicated. I'm not sure if it's an error or a deliberate attempt to provide navigation farther down the page. Because there's another issue. See that scrollbar, notice how tiny it is? Towards the end of this page - in fact, on every page - there is a 100-row table of text links that gives alternate names for products. On the homepage it's 8 screens deep and adds an overhead of 137 kilobytes to the page. These links account for 71% of the homepage's payload; a huge amount of noise, and a massive amount of content to navigate. Or, more likely, ignore.

On top of these fundamental considerations, there are more minor issues: the use of colour is eye-catching to the point of being garish. The search box is poorly placed, close to the fold.

And then there's that font. Comic Sans is not a popular font amongst a certain population of the internet. It was designed for children's comics, and that's the context it conveys. It is not a font that speaks of professional service.

Product pages

This is an e-commerce website, so users will not spend much time on the homepage beyond the first impression. Therefore the product pages and checkout process are vitally important.

On this site, all of the navigation links take the user to a list of all the products in that category, with images of various sizes in varying positions. Bold text, capitalisation, and the colour red are used in product descriptions.

Product category page (188 products) at 1024x768
There is no paging of the products; the link I chose lead to 188 results, all of which were displayed. With the addition of that 100 row table, the page is over a hundred screens deep; over 100 clicks to get the bottom.  It's just too big.

These pages would benefit from some sort of paging control, or some better display of products – a scannable table of regularly-sized images, perhaps, with some better arrangement of thumbnails.

Selecting a product opens a page dedicated to that item, with yet more font sizes, styles, colours and decorations making for a cluttered and visually overwhelming page. Images are displayed first, scattered around the screen at too large a size; smaller thumbnails would be of benefit. Adding a product to the basket - the primary purpose of this page - requires scrolling past all the images to find the details. Actually adding it to the basket is not intuitive; each size is listed as a separate product, and requires careful reading to check that the correct size is chosen. Other sites successfully use a single drop-down control to choose size of product; that would be appropriate here.

Product details
Yet another factor in basket abandonment, between a sixth and almost a quarter of abandoned baskets are due to out of stock products. It shouldn't be possible to add out of stock products to the basket. But, as the image below shows, out of stock products can still be added. This is confusing and unnecessary; the Add button could be disabled or removed in this circumstance.

Product detail: an out of stock product can still be added to the basket

The buying process - basket, registration and checkout

Basket abandonment rates are generally taken to be around 60%, although the actual figure can vary between 15% and 90%. The aim of any e-commerce site should be to make the process as short and simple as possible in order to minimise the number of users that abandon their shopping.

On this site, it's a nine-step process if the user isn't already registered in, seven-steps if they are. This is too long; something closer to two to four steps would be much better. Worse, there's no progress bar on the checkout process, helpful to reassure users that they are progressing through the process and there is a defined end in sight.

Step 1: Clicking the "View and checkout" link displays the Your Current Basket page. There are yet more mixed font sizes, weights and colours. The actual basket content is very nearly below the fold at this resolution. Oddly, the basket summary is again displayed on the right. This seems like an unnecessary duplication of information, adding to the clutter.

Your Current Basket at 1024x768
Step 2: Clicking "Checkout" on this page displays the login/registration page. Unregistered users are taken through new user registration (step 3), an acknowledgement page (step 4), and then - unaccountably - back to the Current Basket page (step 5), from where they have to click Checkout again.  This is a serious issue, adding to the length of the process; five clicks to advance one stage in the process.

The registration acknowledgement page returns the user to the basket

User registration is a classic break in the checkout process, and a major cause of basket abandonment; having to register before checking out puts off around a third of customers. Unless there is a real reason to require registration, or the benefits it offers, then it should be avoided. In this case, there's no statement about the benefits of registration, adding to user frustration at providing the information. True, the information is fairly light, but users are sensitive about giving their information.

Step 6 is to pick a delivery address. This page is full of instructive text, which - once again - will probably be ignored, even if it is red or green, italic or bold.  Users don't read text; they look for something to click. On this page, the text distracts from what the user needs to do - namely, choose an delivery address. If the process needs that much text to explain it, there's something wrong. If it doesn't need that much text, it shouldn't be there. On this page, the actual input field is well below the fold, two clicks away.

Delivery Information (snippet, expanded)
Step 7: the user then picks a courier/delivery service before being presented with a basket summary (step 8) before the Secure Payment Details page - snippet below.

Payment page (snippet)
The text on this page is surely meant to be helpful, but if the users do read it, they will discover that the easiest way to avoid caching problems is to reboot their computer.  I seriously doubt any but the most committed and desperate users will return to a website that has required them to reboot their computer once it's started again.


This is a very short review of the website; there are a lot more issues, large and small (using tables for layout, poor alt tags for images, links to websites that can't be clicked, inconsistent vocabulary, spelling errors), but the topics above are the headline issues that should be addressed first.  Without analytics and user testing it's hard to target specific areas, but it seems reasonable that correcting some or all of these issues should see a significant reduction in the number of abandoned baskets, meaning an increase in the number of orders.

Do you agree with my assessment of this website? I'm fascinated to read your comments. If you'd like me to provide this service for your website, contact me.

Monday, October 11, 2010

How to Fly: Spinning, not Grinding

There's a certain machismo to cycling and gears, the boasting and bragging rights that come from pushing an ever bigger gear.

The trouble is, it's not much fun to be grinding away in the big gears all the time, not desperately good for endurance; high resistance makes for anaerobic exercise, which is great for muscle building, but not sustainable over long periods. So for longer rides, the aim is to go for lighter resistance, easier gears, aerobic exercise, and possible to sustain for much longer.

When cyclists are training for particular events, they will put in a mix of high resistance work to build muscle and power, and low resistance work to build endurance. For the rest of us, it's about getting where we're going, and having fun doing it. Most of the time, casual cyclists are pushing harder gears than they need to, making cycling feel harder than it could.

A Brief Word on Gears

At the front of the drivetrain, the pedals are connected to the axle, and to one (or more) big chain rings.
On the rear wheel, there's a set of (one or more) gear cogs; at any one time the chain connects one chain ring at the front to one cog at the back.  As the pedals turn, so the front ring turns, moving the chain along, and turning the back cog, and so the back wheel.

If the front and rear cogs are exactly the same size, every turn of the pedals results in one turn of the back wheel; a 1:1 gearing.  More often, the chain ring is much larger than the rear cog, and a single turn of the pedals results in the back wheel turning more. As the difference increases, the bike goes farther forward with each revolution of the pedals.

The way that resistance works, it's harder work to turn a bigger gear, and easier to spin a smaller gear, which is why an easier gear is good for hills.

Spinning, not Grinding

The thing is, turning the pedals more quickly feels better. Struggling, grinding the gears is soul-destroying, agony. Also less safe: fighting to turn the pedals generally introduces a wobble, each leg moving the bike from side-to-side, out of control.

In the easier gears, the legs feel lighter; there is less effort to move the back wheel. With the right balance between ease and efficiency - that Beautiful Cadence - the bike fair glides along. And that's the point; bicycles, these clever machines, give wings to our feet, and we should use them to fly.

With modern bikes, we've got fingertip control of the gear ratio we use; we can adjust continually to find the one that suits the road conditions, find the gear that balances ease and efficiency. We can make cycling easier in a flash.

So forget the testosterone, stop bragging about gear inches and counting the teeth on your cogs. It doesn't matter. This isn't a race.

Shift to an easier gear. Set your legs free, and learn how to fly.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Shades of Green

There's an oft-cited example of poor English usage where a woman is described as being "a little bit pregnant".  Although it's common to talk about a woman being (particularly) heavily pregnant when she is close to term, pregnancy is an absolute (one might say binary) condition; a woman is either pregnant, or she is not.  There are no in betweens, there are no degrees of pregnancy. And so it's not possible to use the comparative (more pregnant) or superlative (most pregnant)1; one cannot be pregnanter or pregnantest.

The adjective environmental is also absolute; one cannot be more environmental, or most environmental. Using the word "green" in place of environmental is sometimes helpful (and much less of a mouthful to pronounce), but does have some consequences. For one, we're so used to dealing with different hues and shades of colours, that it's very easy to start thinking environmentalism in terms of shades of green.

It's true that there as many  different environmentalists as there are shades of green. From the so-called dark greens, for whom environmentalism is a consuming passion, often at the centre of their lives; to the light greens who are just dipping their toes in the water.

It's also true that environmentalism is a continuum. And some people assume that being towards one or another end of the spectrum is better than being at some other point; that being dark green, for instance, is better than being a little lighter.  There are even those that mistake the distinction for a binary condition; that because someone isn't as "green" as them, they're not green at all.

Which is obviously crap.

The point of pragmatic environmentalism is that there's one Perfect Right Choice for you, and one for the next person. Likely they're not the same. And that's fine.

Pragmatic environmentalism has room for these distinctions. It isn't about collecting shades of green like they were prizes, or achievements (you've just unlocked the Greenie badge!); that's not the point.  The point is to choose what you believe in, define what you want to do, be intentional about it.  It's not about bragging rights.  It's not recycling a bottle once, and touting your green credentials.

It's about doing what's right for you.

When someone questions you about your environmental principles, your personal green agenda, don't be shy about them.  Show your working, as it were; you've thought about this, you've made decisions, now share them. Don't be embarrassed; welcome the chance to talk about your choices, how they work for you, as well as where they don't.

Don't let anyone tell you it's not easy being green; it's as easy as you choose to make it.

And don't let anyone tell you that you're not green because you don't do it their way.

1 For more on the subject, search for comparative and superlative adjectives.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Layers, Compelling Content and Masterchef

The other week, I wrote about the layers of user experience, and how each layer, however seemingly small, contributed towards a truly great overall user experience.

I've been watching the current series of BBC 2's "Masterchef: The Professionals" in which chefs are invited to compete for the largely-honorific title of Masterchef.  In this particular variant, contestants - all professional chefs - are taken through a series of rounds where they are required to demonstrate their skills to the highest level.

Their judges include restaurant critics from some of Britain's best known newspapers, as well as Michel Roux Jr, of Le Gavroche  in London. With 2 Michelin stars, Michel Jr clearly knows great food, as well as the importance of of the attention to details beyond the taste of the food itself.

On a number of occasions, Michel Jr has commented on the appearance of the contestants' food before he  tasted it, saying that it was poorly prepared, or not well presented ("elegant" seems to be a word that comes up quite frequently). But when the food has delivered on taste, has been deep and full of flavour, he has responded positively. The taste has, in effect, compensated for the initial reaction generated by the appearance of the food on the plate.

The same is true of websites. Yes, first impressions are important.  But sufficiently compelling content can win through, can override those first impressions. Users will look beyond your presentation if your content - or product or service - is compelling enough. But users have got to stick around long enough to realise how great your website is; they must stay beyond the first contact.

Masterchef's judges are committed to the programme; they will taste the food whatever their initial impressions of it. The users of your websites are not so committed; they are likely to be fleeting visitors.  In order to ensure those visits convert to sales, to repeat customers, or whatever your website's strategy is, you need to ensure that their user experience is maximised on as many fronts as possible; give your users as smooth an experience as possible, little to complain about, few barriers to interacting with you through your website.

As the BBC's own style guide notes, there are many people that will be offended by poor presentation; there is no one that will be offended by good, correct presentation.

What is it about your content that is compelling enough that your users will forget their negative first impressions? How could you make your presentation better, more likely that users will stay beyond first contact to discover how great the content is? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Wet Weather Gear for Cycle Commuters

Some thoughts on waterproofs for cycle commuting

Yes, I know that every website and magazine are doing articles on this topic at the moment. But it's important stuff; as the weather changes and the mornings and evenings darken, it's more of an effort to get out on the bike. I need to fight the ennui that tries to keep me in my warm bed and warm car, by removing any excuses I have not to cycle because it's a bit damp and a bit grim.

These, then, are my requirements from my cycle commuting waterproofs:
  1. Remove the excuse not cycle. The waterproofs have got to be practical and convenient. They've got to deliver.
  2. Arrive warm and dry.
  3. Not so precious that I don't wear them for fear of damaging them. This generally means that I've got a price point in mind.
  4. Unobtrusive enough that I've got them at all times; if there's any chance that I'll start to think of them as baggage (because I'm not wearing them), that will increase the chance that I don't wear them, so will feel unprepared, so won't cycle.
I won't turn down reflective patches on any of my waterproofs, figuring that it's better to look like a Christmas decoration and be noticed, than not be seen and end up on the side of the road.

My cycle commuting waterproofs

My waterproofs are a large part of my core wardrobe; I wear them all the time because they're practical, convenient and useful. Affiliate links for more product information, if you need it.

Gore Bike Wear Helmet IV Cap (Wiggle)

I usually wear my hair pretty short, so feel the need for a layer under my helmet as soon as the weather gets a bit chilly. I bought the Gore cap (with the long name) in 2009 and it performed brilliantly all through the winter. Windproof and breathable, with an "anatomical cut" that covers my ears and keeps them out of the wind. I've also found it to be lightly waterproof, enough for all but the worst downpours.

Altura Night Vision Waterproof Gloves (WiggleEvans)

These gloves are the business. Simply put, they're warm, waterproof and reflective. Warm enough that I've never felt the cold whilst wearing them, despite sub-zero temperatures. The cuff is nice and long and sits well under the sleeves of my jacket, reducing the chance of chilly wind getting in. In less cold conditions my hands sometimes feel too warm, so it's nice that they're also breathable. They're waterproof enough that the misery of cold, wet hands is a distant memory. There's a textured grip on the palm to make sure I can keep hold of my handlebars in the rain. And the back of the gloves are reflective so that cars can see me indicating.

Altura Night Vision Waterproof Cycling Jacket (WiggleEvans)

This jacket has been a mainstay of my wardrobe.  It's probably warmer than it needs to be, even with the armpit vents.  But it's high-vis, reflective, warm.  It's also windproof and waterproof.  It's my standard cycling jacket; the cut and fit are bang-on, and it's sensibly priced.  I've had four years of use out of it, and whilst it might not be the most stylish, it's been fantastic for my requirements.

There's a zipped pocket on the left breast, perfect for keys or phone (or OBE), and a horizontal pocket on the tail, for stuffing things into on the ride.  Along with the high collar, the velcro on the cuffs and long tail with a tightener help keep the wind out.

Sure, in a really serious downpour, this jacket is going to let some water through. But at this price point, for the conditions I cycle in, it's a steal.

Endura Stealth Tights (CRC)

These tights are unpadded (I wear them over my regular cycling shorts) and very cool.  Well, actually just the opposite; beneath the waterproof outer layer, they've got a fleece inner, so they're really toasty.  They're also waterproof (with welded seams that I don't even notice), breathable, and stretchy, a great fit. In colder weather I wear them every day and stay nicely toasty.  When it's wet, I stay dry. What more do I need? Did I mention that they're also reflective?

SealSkinz waterproof socks (Wiggle, Evans)

Warm and dry, these socks have been just about perfect, once I got used to the crackly carrier bag noise. Unless it's really coming down, these are the only thing I need under my shoes. I might appreciate longer socks in colder weather, but I can always wear some underneath. Although I bought the ones with the high-visibility flash on the top, these ankle-length socks are usually covered my the Stealth Tights, so I could do without the high-vis flash, to be honest.

Frankly, the crackles are a small price to pay for dry feet.

Endura Road Overshoes (Evans, CRC)

I don't often wear these, as I find them too much of a faff for my shortish commute. But they're certainly waterproof. Last year they spent most of the winter in my panniers, in case of severe weather, but I didn't wear them for more than a handful of rides.

Friday, October 1, 2010

How Not to Waste Time, Money and Energy

One of the many stereotypes about Yorkshire, where I was born and spent the first two decades of my life, is that the inhabitants are frugal to the point of being miserly.  As much as I dislike stereotypes, I do find myself wondering about this particular one, because I pride myself on being careful with money.

For me, it isn't thrift for thrift's sake so much as about getting value. I don't object to spending money, so much as spending more money than I need to; if I can find the exact product elsewhere for less, why pay more? I distinguish between spending money and wasting money; spending is good and necessary; an exchange of cash for commodity, something that brings me benefit - value. Wasting is spending money without any value to me.

It's true that I like to get value out of what I pay for. I mean, I squeeze the last toothpaste out of the tube. I also object to paying for things I don't want, or won't use. So I don't buy pre-packaged vegetables - a bag of carrots, for example - because I don't want to pay for the packaging. And I want to buy only as many vegetables as I'll use. I don't want to throw away veggies that have gone off  because I didn't need that many; that's waste.

It's not just about the money

It's not just waste of money; I abhor wasting time and energy as well.

Many years ago I arrived home from a shopping trip and began putting the food away. I noticed how much time I was spending disposing of all the extraneous packaging; taking the fruit and vegetables out of the bags that I'd used to group them in the trolley, purely for the convenience of the checkout operator. And all the other things that were over-packaged in one way or another. At that time, I remember that ground coffee was sold in a sealed bag inside a cardboard box; two layers of packaging where one would do!

I began to see the cost of packaging in terms of time, money and energy. The moment I got home, it was costing me time and energy to throw away something I'd paid for; something that served to make life easier for a supermarket rather than me.

Ever since then I've been selective about what I buy in order to reduce the amount of packaging I pay for. And there are great deal of things that are as much about the packaging as they are about the product. Yes, some packaging is useful, but there's so much that is not, that's purely there for the convenience of the producers and retailers. Do we really need our corn flakes, for example, in both bag and box? Or does that just help fill a shelf and draw attention to a brand?

Waste is a moral issue

Sometimes I think that the drive to justify environmentalism on financial grounds (note the order of the words in "Save Cash and Save the Planet") doesn't do itself any favours; yes, cost saving is a part of it, but I'd like to think that there was a moral impetus there as well.

The triple triangle of time, money and energy is an important part of the decision-making process in my pragmatic environmentalism.  But I also make decisions on moral grounds; some of my personal principles are there because I believe they're the right thing to do.

I've a great dislike of the word profligate, meaning recklessly and extravagantly wasteful. Waste is unnecessary, just plain wrong, and practices that perpetuate waste are to be avoided.

These days I spend less time shopping in supermarkets with their neatly-wrapped coconuts, their double-packaged vegetables. When I do, I'm selective about those things I buy. I decline bags for my carrots because they don't add any value for me.

I make it a point of principle to buy only what I can use, and use what I buy.

I spend my time, money and energy; I don't waste them. And I don't do profligate because it's just plain wrong.