Not Evangelism

Monday, November 29, 2010

My 1000 mile commute (my cycling week)

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

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

And off I went.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 26, 2010

Types of environmentalism

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

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

Types of environmentalist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My type of environmentalism

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

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

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

Related posts:

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book review: The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 22, 2010

Not quite 1000 miles (my cycling week)

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

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

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

Excuses and reasons for not cycling to work

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reasons to cycle to work

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

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

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

Finding the motivation to cycle0

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

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

I'll be armed with reasons, not excuses.

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

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

Friday, November 19, 2010

Environmentalism (still) isn't black and white

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

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

Here we go.

Environmentalism is not binary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My kind of environmentalism

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

Ho ho.

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

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

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

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

Sour green grapes

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

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

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

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

Related posts:

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Dark patterns 3: exploiting careless users

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

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

Users are not cautious enough when shopping online

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

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

Taking the web seriously; treating it with more respect

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

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

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

Help users to recognise and avoid dark patterns

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 15, 2010

Cyclists make more considerate car drivers

There, I've said it.

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

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

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

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

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

Drivers make better cyclists

And guess what?  Drivers make more considerate cyclists.

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

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

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

Friday, November 12, 2010

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

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

Philanthropy is a kind of environmentalism

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

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

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

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

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

Environmentalism is not black and white

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

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

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

Well, no.

Unsubscribing is a touchpoint with your users

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

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

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

Unsubscribing the right way

One click and you're gone

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

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

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

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

Make yours a happy farewell

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

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

Monday, November 8, 2010

In Pursuit of the Beautiful Cadence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 5, 2010

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

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

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

The Fish Man

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

I think the Fish Man is a Very Good Thing.

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

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

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

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

The Butcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's what provenance means to me.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

Disabling right-click: why do it?

The reasoning goes something like this.

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

Disabling right-click: the truth

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

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

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

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

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

Disabling right-click kills user experience

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

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

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

Disabling right-click makes your website look amateurish

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

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

Disabling right-click must stop

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

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

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

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Monday, November 1, 2010

What I Know About Fixedwheel Cycling

Keep pedalling.

You freewheel more than you realise.

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

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

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

Bunny hops up the kerb are tricky.

Keep pedalling.

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

Falling off is nigh-inevitable, at first.

Keep pedalling!

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

Mounting a moving bicycle is a tricky thing to master.

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

Don't. Stop. Pedalling.