Not Evangelism

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Fun Does Not Mean Comic Sans

I was asked to provide some content for a new website, and in the process of looking at it, I couldn't help but notice the presentation.

The layout, for instance, was too large to fit on my 1280x1024 monitor. A collection of photographs and their associated labels were disjoint. There were typos, text was uppercase, apparently randomly. And the predominant font was comic sans.

Now there is much to be said about comic sans, and a great deal more to be said about the role of font in brand, in the look and feel of a website (or application, or book).

But for me it boils down to a question of the appropriateness of comic sans for the subject. For a comic, for instance, it may well be the most appropriate font. For a warning sign, perhaps not.

In this case, I presume that the use of comic sans is to promote a sense of fun; there are humorous (although possibly in breach of various copyright) images, and the tone is light.

All well and good. But does the use of Comic Sans add to this?

I think not.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Email newsletters: detail matters (even in the subject line)

This morning, I received an email newsletter from a company that has re-designed their website. The subject line invites me to "celebrate our new web site".

The email meets many of my criteria for a good email communication strategy - it's quite clear who the sender is, why I'm receiving the email. And the option to unsubscribe is right where I expect it to be, at the end of the message.

So far, so good.

Unfortunately, the email falls down on a small, but significant detail: there's a spelling mistake in the subject line. They've lost me before I've visited the website, before I've even opened the email.

Detail Matters, Even in the Subject Line

User experience starts before the front page. Yes, compelling content will win out, but you've got to get visitors to your website (or to open your newsletter) before they can discover your content. Any barrier must be removed, anything that stops someone from making that first click. Even a typo - something so apparently small, so easily fixed.

Because every detail matters.

What was the error? The subject line offers "20% of everything".

And I'm pretty sure they don't mean that in the same vein as Harry Brignull does.

Related articles:

Friday, June 17, 2011

Food Miles Oversimplify Local Food

There's an interesting article over at TreeHugger this week on how (and why) the notion of "Food Miles" oversimplifies local food.

This article raises many of the points I wanted to address in a very popular article I wrote after watching a disappointing report on BBC television's Countryfile.

Local food is a good idea. It is likely to be fresher, which quite likely means more tasty. It's almost certainly going to be seasonal. And it's going to require less fuel to transport (which, ultimately, means less carbon - good news if that's your measurement of choice). Besides which, the money for the food is more likely to go straight back into the local economy. All of which, I'm sure, are very good things, and important to me.

But locally-produced food doesn't automatically guarantee decent welfare for animals; local food won't always be produced without pesticides or fertilisers. And for some people, local food might mean genetically modified food - it's got to be grown somewhere, right?

As for food miles, they are one (vastly over-simplified) measure of the environmental impact of food production and consumption - largely a measure of carbon impact (which, it could be said, is yet another oversimplification). They're certainly not the only consideration.

As ever, the choices come down to what's right for you; what's important according to your own personal principles.

Related articles:

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"Please scroll down to select size & add to your basket"

If every page on your website says this, you probably want to look at re-designing your page layout.

Especially if the item in question comes in only one size. Much like the "Please scroll down" message. Because, in this case, one size does not fit all.

The fact that the website needs to use this message suggests that they've had problems with their users not being able to find their primary action buttons, their calls to action; Add to Basket, Buy Now, whatever they happen to be called. Which means that they're not obvious enough - perhaps because they're not visible on the screen at target resolution.

But writing a message that users need to look harder - work harder, take another step - and putting it on every page, is not the answer.

Users look for something to click; they don't want to be hunting around. Every moment that users spend looking for a link, a button, is a moment closer to them leaving your website in despair. They don't want to resort to having to read the little, unimportant text on the page; they want a great big call to action. Buy Now.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Cycling's Biggest Challenge is Not Motorists

The biggest challenge in promoting cycling is not other road users, truly it's not; the problem is a matter of perception.

In fact, the problem with cycling is soundbites. The desire for a good story. The need to moan rather than to celebrate.

Cycling is Safe and Easy

I have cycled pretty regularly for two decades; my love affair with two wheels started in the nineties. Although I am not a particular rabid cyclist, I have in that time cycled thousands of miles. And I have been shouted at by drivers twice. Both occasions, by the by, in the last few months, within a mile of my house - which I suspect says more of the area I'm living in than of motorised road users in general.

I have never been knocked off my bike by a motorist. And I have ridden on dual carriageways, with heavy traffic doing more than 70 miles per hour, in atrocious road conditions. I have ridden on country roads, with deep ditches, blind corners, narrow lanes. I have ridden in standing traffic, in cities where frustrated travellers wished for a speedy end to their journeys.

All without incident, without a story other than a Good Ride.

I have, in the main - in the vast, vast, vast majority of cases - been given plenty of room, and ample consideration for my own particular requirements as a two-wheeled fragile, slow road user.

People Like Horror Stories

But miles of happy cycling is not what people remember. Not what makes a good, memorable, recount-it, retweet-it, tell-it-down-the-pub story. Not what I write about, some of the time.

People like bad news.

Visitors to the house last weekend commented on my recent tweets and updates on Facebook, where I had fallen into the trap of maligning a couple of specific incidences of unhappy motoring. Two occasions where my morning commute had been marred by stupid, thoughtless behaviour from drivers.

Two incidents in two thousand miles.

Two times, in the mornings, in the dark hours when we must all commute, must all do the school run, must all do whatever we must do when everyone else is doing what they must, when we would all rather be in bed, in the arms of our loved ones, and certainly not out on the roads with all of them.

I'm not excusing these motorists, mark you; they acted dangerously, erratically, rudely. Morning grumpiness does not, will not ever excuse that. There is no license for unsafe conduct.

But my point is this: people (and I include you, dear readers, in that noun) do not remember the thousands of happy miles; the countless glorious, wonderful simple acts of kindness when motorists have hung back, have given me room, have been aware of me on my little two-wheeled conveyance, and have shown consideration. It is not the moments when I feel that I am flying that catches attention, not the moments when the world settles around me and I am in the zone, cycling the beautiful cadence, delighting in life.

It is the moments of madness, of darkness, of inconsiderate behaviour that are more attractive.

Yes, this is partly because I have not tweeted about those bright moments, the everyday rides. I have not declaimed at length at the necessary - and expected and welcome - decency of the huge majority of the drivers I have encountered.

But people are drawn to the dark side, aren't they? All of us, attracted by the bad stories rather than the uplifting ones.

So here's a vote for all the good times; all the uneventful rides, all the moments where nothing bad happened and the world was as it should be. Because they are far more common, far more regular, far more prosaic, than the ones that get talked about.

And that's good news. Cycling is good, and safe, and fun.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Cycling Firsts

Last week, several cycling firsts for the year: my first commute (home) without waterproof leggings. Then my first commute in spring gloves rather than winter gloves.

The first commute in shorts and short-sleeved jersey. Which included the first time up the Big Hill (on my singlespeed) without getting out of the saddle.

In other words, last week was Quite A Week.

Although the year is still young, spring is on her merry way, and cycling is getting easier, more pleasant, more fun as the weather gets warmer and the days get longer. And yes, as I get fitter.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A New Bike

Last week, I commuted on my new bike for the first time.

It was a frosty morning, by the by, not so cold that I suffered brain freeze on the big downhill, but cold enough that my toes were tending towards numbness as I arrived at the office.

The Joys of a New Bike

There's a pleasure in riding a new bike, of course, especially one that has been a long time coming. I've wanted this bike for a year or so. I ordered it in December 2010. That's a lot of deferred pleasure.

Picking a new bike is great fun, certainly; choosing the colour of the frame, the saddle, the bar tape. There's joy to be found in kitting out the bike, too, putting the new bits and pieces on it, arranging it just so. But it's not just the lure of the new, the shiny. It's also the thrill of excitement from meeting a new friend, of learning about their little quirks. Sure, there's always a certain amount of getting used to a new friend; the riding position being ever so slightly different, the pedals needing a bit of tweaking and set-up, the responsiveness of the steering and the brakes.

And there are the unanswered questions, too - particularly with a machine ordered over the Internet, unseen, unridden.

Will I like it? Should I have chosen something else? Was I crazy to pick a singlespeed bike for my commuter, on the Cycle2Work scheme? This is not a bike I can easily sell on if I don't like it - it's owned by my employer for at least 12 months. Am I be strong enough to ride my commute with just one gear?

One of my biggest worries was whether I'd picked the "right" gearing. Picking a singlespeed gearing is naturally, necessarily a compromise: a gear easy enough to get up the worst of the hills, a gear hard enough to make the flats and downhills manageable without spinning out (and if you hadn't considered the latter a possibility or a problem, try it the next time you're going down a decent hill; the old legs are reluctant to go beyond a certain speed).

The Early Verdict

After that first ride, I think I've got the gearing bang-on. On the flat, the gear felt pleasant - definitely spinning rather than grinding - but with just enough resistance that it was fun. After the morning ride I was pleased.

In the evening: I will not claim I glided up the Big Uphill, but I did climb it without stopping and sweating too much. Sure, I had to get out of the saddle to get over the worst of the gradient, but I'd expected that. And at no point had I found the going so tough that I'd even been near considering stopping, slowing or - help! - getting off and pushing. No dismounts, no walking, no worries!

So I figure the gearing is about right.

And an unexpected benefit: because the gear is a touch easier than I might choose on another bike, because I can't change that gear, I spend more of the time spinning rather than grinding (on the flats, at least, where normally I would be pushing a bigger and bigger gear). This means that I can't go quite so fast, but it means that it feels easier. And, better still, it feels more fun! I spend more time in the easier cadence, working less hard, feeling stronger, more aerobic exercise.

I felt, in short, that I was flying more often than I normally do.

One thing I did notice: momentum is key. Because I have to work a little to get on top of the gear from a standing start, it means that I'm increasingly reluctant to stop. I need to plan my deceleration, looking farther down the road, reading the traffic. These are good skills to hone.

In Conclusion

The first ride with my new friend was great. The bike rides really well. Yes, the saddle needs raising a little, and the brake hoods - squat, chunky things - feel less comfortable in my hands than the Shimano integrated shifters I've used for the last 2000 miles. But that's a question of familiarity; they're comfy enough, and so is the bike - clearly the money spent on a bike fitting when I bought the Giant is still paying dividends.

And I was smiling all the way there and back again.

Friday, March 4, 2011

On Plastic

I am not a great fan of plastic.

I mean, I like the qualities of plastic: that it's unbreakable (or, at least, shatterproof), durable, watertight. Lightweight. It's a great idea. But I don't like that it's made from a non-renewable resource (crude oil, ultimately), and is rather tricky to recycle. It's not great at rotting, tending to stick around for ages, clogging up the place for hundreds of years.

So wherever possible, I prefer to avoid plastic, and choose alternatives that are made from renewable materials, or can be more easily disposed of at the end of their life, through recycling or bio-degrading, or composting.

I eschew plastic bags, choosing instead to use my hands and pockets, or cardboard boxes.

I buy my milk in glass bottles (that, as well as being made from the wonderfully renewable glass, are rinsed, returned and reused). I buy baskets and wooden storage boxes. I have a metal toolbox I inherited from my father (and might yet pass on to my son).

There are, though, times when only plastic will do. To store something in a sometimes-damp garage, safe from rodent's teeth, protected from the weather - plastic is pretty much the best choice.

In these cases, I choose plastic that is durable, robust, and - if possible - made from a type of plastic that can be recycled (or, at least, downcycled). And I plan to keep it for a long time; I weigh my current needs, my future plans, and choose the best fit that will last. If I'm going to buy plastic, I want it to be as infrequently as possible, and I don't want to be throwing it away any time soon.

Getting the best - the most - out of what I spend my time and money on. That's my kind of environmentalism.

Monday, February 28, 2011

How to Cycle More 2: Have a Routine

I'm aiming to cycling 2000 commuting miles in 2011, an average of two days a week. In order to achieve this, I've got to be committed, and crafty. Last week, I wrote about how being flexible helps me cycle more.

This week: flexibility is good, and so is routine.

Or, because "routine" sounds like a bind to some people, let's call it habit. Rhythm. Or, better yet, cadence.

There's a rhythm to cycle commuting the same two days a week.

Setting aside 2 days to cycle means I am mentally prepared to do it; I know it's coming. There's none of that "I'll do it tomorrow" unease that turns into full-blown panic at the end of the week, when I've not cycled and so I have to cycle and it's howling with wind, pelting down with rain and snow, icy and bleak.  There's no joy to be had on days like that.

There's comfort in knowing that Tuesdays and Thursdays, I'll be cycling. I can structure my week around it. I can make plans.

On Monday I can get myself set for the week; bring clean clothes into the office for the days I cycle, buy my fruit and lunches for the week. On Friday, when the legs are tired and the spirit beleaguered from the working week, I can plan to drive home, bringing home whatever I need for the weekend. And Wednesday can be my time to run errands that require the car, or my contingency if Tuesday or Thursday isn't going to plan. My day of rest. Or even an extra cycle commuting day. I can be flexible with my routine.

Because flexibility is good, and flexibility built around a predictable routine; a routine that is adaptable - is great. And it means that I can cycle more reliably, more often, on more occasions - that's something very special.

Related articles:

Monday, February 21, 2011

How to Cycle More: Be Flexible

In 2010, I rode just over a thousand commuting miles on my bike. This year (2011), I plan to double that. As my daily commute is 22 miles, this target means I'll be cycling to work an average of two days a week.

Of course, it's rarely as simple as simply picking a set couple of days and cycle commuting on those two days every week. Real life gets in the way of plans; sometimes I need to have access to a car. Perhaps I need to visit a client site, and it's just not feasible to do so on my bike. Maybe my wife has asked me to get some supplies, more than I can carry. Or, because I work in the countryside, I need to get into town to do some banking or other personal admin.

How to balance the need to fit these everyday tasks with the goal of cycle commuting twice a week?

The answer, I find, is flexibility. Being prepared to drive to work and cycle home one day, and the reverse the next day means I get the benefits of having the car at the office during the day, and cycling too. The "old 4-2-2-4" I call it, being the number of wheels on my commute, morning and evening, over two days.

This week is a case in point. I have a site visit, a lunch meeting, and some errands to run over the course of the week. If I stuck to my allotted cycle commuting days, I wouldn't be able to cycle at all. But by shifting when I cycle commute - driving in one day, then cycling home that evening; cycling in the next day and driving home the second evening - I ensure I've got access to the car when I need it, whilst meeting my cycling commitments.

In some respects, this flexibility is a variation of my tactic of removing excuses - I can't possibly cycle today, I've so much to do! - and also increases my opportunity to cycle as well as the likelihood of doing so. Which brings me ever closer to that 2000 mile, twice a week goal.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Local, Seasonal Fruit and Vegetables

I like tomatoes, I really do. I love their sharp sweetness, the way those little cherry tomatoes burst under the roof of my mouth. I love beef tomatoes, sliced thickly and layered with mozzarella or onion. I can't understand that people don't enjoy them. It's something to do with the texture, apparently.

For me, there's something about the deep red (or orange, or tiger-stripe) of tomato fruits that evoke summer; I can see the colour of the sky as I think about eating tomatoes outside. And there's something about the smell of tomatoes that transports me to my father's greenhouse in my childhood house, green fruit swelling on the plants; and to my own greenhouse, where the thick dark-green stalks with their downy covering exude that intense aroma.

But I can't and won't eat tomatoes when they're watery and tasteless. I asked my wife, not so long ago, if she remembered eating the last tomato she'd had, if she had tasted it. When she remembered eating one that she tasted.

She couldn't.

After that, we agreed not to buy tomatoes out of season, from foreign shores. We've made the same agreement for asparagus and strawberries and all those other vegetables that it's possible to get year-round,  but which taste best of all when they're in season, and grown locally (meaning they're picked and sold in short order, still fresh).

So last week I was pleased and surprised to find the local supermarket had tomatoes ostensibly grown in Britain. And they were tasty enough, even if they're doubtless grown with the help of lots of heated greenhouses rather than in the heat of the sun. A guilty pleasure at this time of year.

This week, they did not. Oh, they had tomatoes, from Spain and Holland, from Morocco and the Canary Islands. Too far afield. Too well-travelled. No tomatoes for me this week.

But they did also have Cox's apples and Conference pears, both from the UK. So this week I have no tomatoes, but I am knee-deep in apples and pears. The break from tomatoes will make them more special when they're available again. If I can wait for asparagus, I can wait for tomatoes. Especially when I've got apples and pears to console me.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The password reset process, revisited

Another example of not telling the user what you want from them, this time from O2, a mobile phone network in the UK.

This week, I needed to visit the secure area of the O2 website, and - of course - because it had been so long since I had last visited, I had forgotten my password. Time to use their password reset process.

So I went through the motions, and - dutifully reading the "Important" text to the side of the new password fields - I entered my new password.

I've recently started using a random password generator, and I faithfully put in the minimum requirements stated on the O2 website. The instructions on this page are pretty clear: the minimum and maximum length of the password are stated, and the statement about mixing letters and numbers indicated that I could use both. I was a little sure what they meant by "other characters" so I added a basic set of punctuation characters to my generation algorithm.

...and fell at that hurdle - see screenshot below.

Despite all the excellent direction in the blue box, there is still some mystery about what "other characters" are permitted. Only by experimenting was I able to get to a password that was acceptable to O2's secret, inscrutable requirements.

Each time I failed, a slap from the website, an invitation to abandon the process and go elsewhere. It's a good job I really needed to get into the secure website. And collect case studies of interaction design for this blog.

Because this is the problem with keeping your website's password criteria secret: user frustration. What percentage of users try again after the first failure? What percentage leave after the second?

Related articles:

Monday, February 14, 2011

Cycling Because I Choose To

Some days I don't cycle to work and wish I had. Some days I commute on my bike and wish I hadn't.

Most days, of course, it's somewhere in between; that happy combination of cycling and being glad that I did. Or - and this is important too - choosing not to cycle and being comfortable with the reasons for that decision.

Last week, the weather forecast for a particular morning had been pretty straightforward: it was going to be wet. The forecast map showed great blue swathes of rain all over my commuting route, right around the time I'd be out and about.

But forewarned is forearmed. I had time to prepare mentally, to gird my loins as it were. And my wet weather gear is always at hand, so in the morning I didn't delay in getting dressed up and saddled up. And you know what? As usual, the weather wasn't so bad, certainly not as bad as my imagination and fears might have made it. The rain was more like a lazy drizzle; and infrequent at that, very light rather than that persistent penetrating stuff. The ride was, in short, straightforward.

Even better, most of the ride was gloriously easy; I was nipping at the heels of that beautiful cadence, zipping along. Smiling. When the voices are trying to talk me out of cycling, I forget the pleasure of cycling in the morning, the simple joy of being out in the fresh air rather than sitting in a metal box. But when I'm out on my bike I remember that there's a real satisfaction in ignoring the voices and cycling.

A good morning ride, then. I was happy to have cycled.

On the way home, the weather was less pleasant. The rain was heavier, the wind less favourable, veering from a sidewind to a headwind that stripped away my speed and sapped my energy.

But I was homeward bound, and the homeward journey is always easier than the outward. The certain knowledge of a warm house and warmer shower, of dry clothes and maybe a gin and tonic, buoyed me up. Besides, what were my choices now? I had to get home, and cycling was the only way.

And I was happy to be cycling. Whenever the conditions are a little bit adverse, I'm always pleased and proud that I made the decision to cycle. Pleased that I ignored the doubting voices, the persuasive little whispers that suggest I leave the bike and use the car. On this occasion, the weather had tried to talk me out of cycling and lost. Oh, there was a little bit of that wouldn't it be nice if it was dry and sunny but I was cycling and glad of it.

In some respects, a ride in bad weather is better than a sunny ride in glorious weather. To have overcome a little adversity, a little struggle, is uplifting. I arrived home wet, but unbowed. Quietly triumphant. Happy.

And that's wonderful.

When the choice is not to cycle and risk wishing that I had, or to cycle and risk wishing I hadn't, it's a simple decision. Wet or dry, windy or still, I'd choose to cycle.

Because here's the thing: unless I actually get on my bike and cycle, I'll only ever be wishing that I had. And more often - far more, actually - I cycle and am glad that I did.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Importance of Signposting in Long Processes

Signposting is Important

When faced with a long, complex online process such as a detailed application form or data capture, it's tempting to try and remove as many steps as possible in order to make the process shorter and simpler for the users.

In general, making the process as short and simple as possible is a good idea.  But you need to think very carefully which steps to remove.  Those "useless" wordy pages that help to signpost and position the user in the process (after all, no one reads them anyway, right?) - those may be the very pages that you need to keep.

The thing is, the longer the process - and at some point, there really won't be anything else you can take out - the more important those signposting pages become.

The Value of Signposting

Up front, signposting sets expectations about the length and complexity of the process. Signposts allow you to tell the users what you expect of them, what preparation they need to do before they begin At the end, signposts allow you to congratulate your users on getting to the end of the journey.

Throughout a long process, signposts are miniature conversations with the users. It's a chance to give them a pat on the back, a nod that they're doing well.

User testing shows that users need reassurance that they're doing the right thing. There's an innate suspicion of computers, a wariness of online forms that users need reassurance about. Without a human face, users start to get nervous. What if the data gets lost? What if I've done something wrong?

Users become invested in the time they've spent; they need to know that the information they've provided has been saved, and that they don't have to go through this all over again.

How to Signpost

Signposting needn't be complicated. Sometimes it's as simple as:
You are here. You've just done that. Next, you're going to do this.
Signposts help to reinforce progress indicators, give feedback about the stages of the process that the users have completed, tell them where they are in the process.

And if you're concerned about the number of pages in your process, signposts don't necessarily need to have their own, dedicated pages. You might consider integrating signposts into the process flow; make them more visual, less wordy. But they do need to be there. Without them, your users are going to get mired down in the process.

The Importance of Signposting

Signposting allows users to pause and draw breath. They give pace to your process, a chance to relax from the serious business of providing information.

Make your application process as lightweight as possible, by all means. But don't remove the very things that help users deal with long-winded processes. Don't underestimate the value of signposts to help your users along.

Monday, February 7, 2011

My Commute

One of the greatest factors on the choice of bike, commuting clothing, lights and so on, is the commute itself; how long it is, how much of it is on rural roads, without streetlights, or in a town. I thought I'd share a bit about my commute, and the reasons I've made some of the choices I have for lights, clothing, bike and so on.

My commute is about 11 miles long, the majority of it (about 8 miles) on unlit country roads where the speed limit is 60mph, interspersed with brief stretches through small towns and villages along the way. In the urban areas the speed limit is 30mph and there are streetlights every 50 metres or so. Barring occasional roadworks, there are no traffic lights on any of my route; I rarely have to come to a complete stop.

There's pretty much only one route I can take to and from the office, without adding significant extra mileage. So there's not a lot of variety in my route (so it's great that the rural scenery is always changing - I see something new every day). There are also very limited options for public transport. If I have a serious mechanical, then it's a question of limping home or calling for backup.

Commute Details

The first mile and a half is mostly downhill, in town, and lit, at 30mph. Obviously, this means that on the way home, the last stretch is pretty much all uphill. But at least I'm nearly home by then!

The next three miles are unlit, country roads, 60mph speed limit, with 4 foot ditches on either side of the road. When it's dark, I want very good lights for this part of the ride. I want to be seen, and I want to be able to see.

After about half a mile straight through a little town, I'm back into lanes between fields and hedgerows once more. Now my ride takes me along a bridlepath that runs beside a dual carriageway; it's an unlit stretch, but it's pretty much traffic free (the dual carriageway hidden by a wooden fence). At the far end, it's a short, sharp climb up the bridge over the dual carriageway where I sometimes stop to admire the sun rising (or setting) over the water parks and lakes. Then down the other side and into another village where I rejoin the main road.

I'm over halfway there now.

Barely a tenth of a mile of streetlights, houses and 30mph before it's back onto country roads and another mile and a half on unlit rural roads. After another mile of 30mph lit roads through yet another small Cotswolds village, all yellow stone and pretty cottages, it's back to country roads alongside fields for the last couple of miles to the office.


The elevation of my commute is shown in the image below. The descent over the first mile and a half is a nice introduction to the ride, then except for the couple of lumps towards the end (around mile 10) the ride is pretty flat (which makes it ideal for a single speed bike).

Lights for Cycle Commuting

Because so much of my daily ride(more than 8 of the 11 miles) is on rural roads where the speed limit is 60mph, I want good lights that enable me to see where I'm going. My primary light has a good beam that lights up the road sufficiently far ahead so that I can avoid potholes and major obstacles. Of course, I also want to be seen, so I've got a secondary light that I usually run flashing, and I've got reflective patches on my jacket, gloves, pedals and frame. Research has shown that reflectors are most effective on moving parts, such as ankles so reflectors on the pedals are a good choice. In the UK, bikes are supposed to be sold with reflectors on the pedals, and I've got some inserts for my SPD clipless pedals that have reflectors front and back.

I've got little LED lights on my helmet too, for that added visibility. Lights in unexpected places tend to make road users and drivers look twice, which I figure is a good thing.


For the urban stretches, as brief as they are, I'm sometimes cycling in traffic, and I have a little bar end mirror that gives me that bit extra information about my fellow road users, without having to turn my head continually.

Clothing for my Commmute

My office has shower facilities and our dress code is smart casual. I've got room to store shirts and suits for the week if I need to. So I can ride in cycling gear - warm and weatherproof for those unexpected downpours - and know that I've got clean, dry clothes waiting for me at the end of the ride.

All the distance and elevation information provided by the excellent Gmaps Pedometer website.

Related articles:

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Expertise, Not Evangelism

The Spoon Collection is no more.

The new title of this blog - the real title, the title I had in my mind from the start, is Expertise Not Evangelism.

Expertise is good; skills and knowledge founded on enthusiasm and experience, and balanced with some pragmatism. I don't like the kind of shining-eyed evangelism that ignores other people's personal circumstances and attempts to force beliefs on them regardless of how inappropriate those beliefs might be.  Evangelism too often disregards those people that don't subscribe to the whole package. No thank you. There will be no preaching here.

I'm not trying to be worthy either; I'm not campaigning or crusading for my cause. I'm not militant about it, I'm simply sharing my passions. Of course, I do hope that you might catch some of my enthusiasm and maybe share some of my joys, perhaps even do something similar that works for you. But that's down to you.

Expertise not evangelism. Passion without preaching. Oh, I've got alliteration.

Expertise not Evangelism

This blog is a reflection of my philosophy. I'm writing about subjects I'm passionate about, that I have experience and - yes! - expertise in. These articles - this blog - is an expression of that passion, a sharing of that knowledge.

But that's as far as it goes. I'm not going to spend any time plaguing you to cycle and be environmental and consider the user experiences of your work (although, you know, you really could). Ultimately, and always, those choices are down to you. I've made my decisions, and this blog is the product of them. If you get something out of it, then you might consider what you find here free advice.

The best thing about advice, of course, is that you don't have to take it. You can adapt it to your personal circumstance, take the bits that work for you,  ignore it wholesale.

I really hope you'll find something of value here.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Pleasures of Winter Cycling (and my Winter Soundtrack)

Cycling in Winter Has its Own Pleasures

It's easy to say that cycling is more fun when the weather conditions are right, particularly during the warmer seasons in the middle of the year. But there's something special about the still, clear mornings at this time of year, when the sky is red before the day dawns properly and the cold gives a tingling crispness to the air.

The pace of the seasons is more obvious now, with the dawn and dusk shifting gradually about my regular commuting times. As the days get a little longer, the ride home becomes a little lighter each time, the twilight gloom gathering a little later in the ride, a little closer to home. It's nice to have this connection with the seasons, to see the world changing day by day, revealing different faces during the morning and evening ride. Oh, I love the regularity of the summer commute, all daylight and green trees. But during winter my rides are more variable, so much more interesting.

Last week, on the way home, about half an hour before sunset, the mist was just starting to rise on the fields. About waist-high when I left, as I moved through the artificial lakes and flooded gravel pits of the Cotswold Water Parks, through the water meadows, the mist gathered and rose. By the time I was on the last couple of miles before home, swathes of it were spilling across the road, twice the height of a man.

And behind it all, the yellowing sun making silhouettes of trees and church steeples. Moody, dramatic. Wonderful.

And it's not only me: over at The Trusty Steed, Girl and Steed described her own Winter Wonderland this week.

My Winter Commute Soundtrack

I've been putting the finishing touches to my Winter Soundtrack. It's always interesting to trial the music that plays so well in the car, and find that it just doesn't work in the noisy environment of the bike ride.

There's some lovely stuff by Tinie Tempah that's got a good thumping high-BPM heart rate-raising quality to it, so that's staying on the playlist. But some of the Nick Cave songs don't play so well; moody and mysterious they might be, but they're not quite right for the bike. Similarly, some of the Dizzee Rascal tracks that I thought might be fun aren't appropriate. Dizzee spits so fast that it's lost in the rush of wind and wheels.

Once the final list is confirmed, I'll share it.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Nothing Too Nice To Use (Moleskine Notebooks)

One of my personal principles is the avoidance of clutter: owning nothing that I don't use regularly, having nothing Too Nice To Use. Clutter - aside from lying around, waiting to be dusted, cluttering up the place - is a sneaky kind of waste. After all, if I'm not using something, then I don't need it. Which means I've wasted time, money and effort on buying it, and I'm going to have to waste more on getting rid of it. Not to mention the cost of producing it in the first place; cost that has no pay back in use because it's just not getting used.

In short, I'm a practical person and I can't have ornaments, by which I mean something I might use one day in the future, or which I'm saving for a special occasion. Something, in other words, that's just Too Nice To Use.

When I find something that has become an ornament in my life, I give myself two options: use it (and I mean really use it, regularly, not just some token effort every now and again). Or get rid of it; if I don't use something, then it has become waste, clutter, so it needs to be passed on, recycled, re-purposed, disposed of. I give myself a little time to trial the process; an amnesty, if you like.  I set a reasonable time to understand my habits, and whether I can and want to change them. If, after the trial period, I can look honestly at what I've done, and say that I'm using the items - I keep them. If, on the other hand, it doesn't work out, then we part company equitably.

Example: Moleskine Notebooks

I'd been quietly collecting notebooks for a short while, the result of some whimsical shopping and a few choice presents from wonderful friends. I particularly liked the Moleskine notebooks; the idea of them, the feel of them, the history. I liked the size of the notebook; they fit the hand very nicely. I liked carrying them around. I thought the hard covers were likely to be handy for on-the-go jottings, for writing anywhere.

But after a time it became clear that all I was doing was carrying them around. I wasn't using them for taking notes, wasn't writing in them. I realised that my Moleskine notebooks had slipped out of use, crossed the line beyond Saved For Best. I was saving my Moleskines for Something Special, never using them: too nice for To Do lists, shopping, jottings.

They'd become ornaments. Too Nice To Use.

So I started to use the Moleskines. I gave myself two weeks. I stopped carrying any other notepads, stopped using the back of envelopes for those sudden thoughts, started writing in the books I'd been saving for best.

And you know what? It turns out that I don't like Moleskine notebooks very much. The lines are too close together for when I'm feeling expressive, or when I don't have a decent surface to write on and my handwriting goes all crazy. They're too small for when I need space to think. The paper doesn't play very well with my fountain pen (which was especially disappointing, because I had been saving them for Something Special). And writing every on other line makes me feel like I'm a child at handwriting class, feels like I'm wasting paper.

In short, I realised that the Moleskine notebooks weren't as nice as I'd thought.

Which is when it got even better.

I realised that my Moleskine notebooks didn't warrant saving for best. They really weren't too nice to use, not by a long distance. And that realisation was particularly satisfying, because it allowed me to use them more; for more than just my most important thoughts. I didn't need to be precious about them. Their function was to be jotted in, not carried around primly or kept on a shelf.

Now I use my Moleskine for everything. I scribble in them, doodle in them, write my shopping lists and idle thoughts. I tear pages out to give to other people. I use them, really use them. Oh, I'm not profligate with them; I don't waste them. But I do use them, and gladly. They're not clutter, they're useful, and used. They're no longer ornaments; they're utensils, something to be used up.

Which is something of a result.

Related articles:

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tell Users What You Want From Them

With any online data capture form, tell the users what you expect them to provide before they provide it. Telling users they've done something wrong after the fact - even through excellent messages and feedback - is just too late.

If there is a field that you require - and I mean, really require, not just something the marketing department want to know - then you need to tell the user to provide it before they click that button.

If there are special restrictions on the data you require, tell the users about it before they provide it. If they're changing their password, tell them what your password policy is before they try. Otherwise, every time they attempt to give you the information you want, they're effectively playing a guessing game with you. Web forms are no place for guessing games. Users have very short patience; they will get frustrated, they will abandon the process.

And please don't be lazy about it, insisting that credit card numbers or telephone numbers must - or must not - have spaces. Why? It's a simple job to write validation routines that will go that extra distance and make it easy for your users?

The Reset Password Process

As with so much else on this blog, sharing this advice is prompted by a website I visited in the last couple of days. I had, I will freely admit, forgotten my password, and with suitable chagrin went through the reset process. It was very quick and straightforward. It didn't make me feel stupid. So far so good.

But then I was promptly directed to the Reset Password page, where I typed in my new password (twice, as usual). I was then presented (after a suitable delay for a round-trip to the server) with the following feedback (image below):

At first glance, the feedback is good: it's next to the field that has failed validation. It's in a distinctive colour (although perhaps the red is a little admonishing schoolteacher). Yes, the message is a little awkward, but the thrust of it is pretty obvious. I'd tried to use a password that I'd used before. We've all done this; for low-value websites, many users recycle a set of easily-remembered passwords. It might not be very secure, but that's what happens.

So I thought for a little while and typed in a new password. And I got this:

Again, the message is pretty clear (if not particularly friendly): the password I'd just made up was too short. Where this message fails is that it gives no information about the acceptable length of the password.

Guessing what the minimum length might be (meaning adding another character to the end of the password I'd just used), I tried once more. Same message: still too short. And still no clue to what the requried length might be.

At this stage, I was starting to get frustrated.

I needed one more attempt before the password I had chosen matched the undisclosed, secret policy requirements. That's three attempts. Three bites at the cherry. Three tries to guess the requirements of the password field; that and a lingering bad feeling about the website in question.

So how could they do it better?

Tell Users What You Want From Them

It's trivially simple to state your password policy before you ask the user for their password. How many characters you're expecting; whether there needs to be a capital letter, a number, a punctuation mark.

Tell the user that they can't use a password they've used previously. That's not giving any security details away; it's just making life easier for the user.

And don't be surprised if users don't read your wonderfully-crafted informative text. If the user supplies a password that's doesn't meet policy, tell them again what your requirements are. Give them concrete, specific feedback. Be gentle. Remind yourself that if the users struggle with your website, it's not their fault; it's yours.

The harder it is for users to guess an undisclosed password policy, the more likely they are to end up choosing a password they won't remember - meaning they have to got through the reset process the next time they visit your website. And the time after that, assuming they ever come back.

Each stumbling block is a barrier for users to cross before you get the chance to interact with them. And users will only jump through so many hoops before they get frustrated and give up.

How can we expect our users to know what we expect of them if we don't tell them? Playing a guessing game with our users - a game the users cannot win - is only going to lose users.

Related articles:

Friday, January 21, 2011

Lapses, Relapses and Celebrating Success

There's a phrase I like, a lapse is not a relapse, meaning that a single slip-up is not evidence of habitual, systemic behaviour. One small misdemeanour does not undo months and years of work.

Being environmental, as I've said before, is a continuum, a gradient. There are shades of green. It's simply not a black-and-white thing.

So when we slip-up (and we do, being human), it doesn't stop us being environmentalists. It doesn't change our core principles, our beliefs. Sure, there are those detractors who are all too willing to fall upon our slip-ups, usually as evidence that we can't be truly environmental because we've had a small lapse.

A Lapse of my Own

Last week, I was spotted (outed!) walking out of a supermarket with a carrier bag. Yes, I was caught there unexpectedly; my wife had asked me to get more things. I didn't have my reusable bags with me. And believe me, it hurt no one as much as it did me to take one of the carrier bags that I've avoided for years. But that doesn't take away from the fact that I've been consciously - actively - taking a position on this for years. Refusing bags at every turn. Using boxes. Carrying my own bags made out of canvas or linen.

Whatever the reasons, it was still a lapse.

And I've been vocal about my choices over the years - not criticising others, so much as sharing my own principles - so there are those that are quite happy to pick me up on it when I slip up. Which is fine. So long as I have a reason for my behaviour - and I mean a reason rather than an excuse - then I'm comfortable answering their questions. I have nothing to be defensive about. My principles are intact.

These are my own principles, after all. I live by them because I chose to. When I compromise them, or fail to meet them, I'm answerable to the highest authority in my life - myself. Compared to that, there's not much anyone else can say (but they do).

Dealing with a Lapse

All of us at some time may - despite our best intentions - just fall a little short of our own personal standards. We can't do everything, not all the time at any rate. And we needn't kick ourselves for our little lapses. We can celebrate what we do, not castigate ourselves for what we don't.

That doesn't mean we get to hide our mistakes. We have to admit to them, and figure out why they happened, so we can stop them happening again.

Over on TreeHugger, they put it like this:
...[when] you slip up (or just plain can't be bothered), don't fall into a state of depression or despair. Just analyze what factors contributed to you falling short of your goals or intentions, and then figure out ways to circumvent those circumstances next time.
(from The Lost Eco-Art of Cutting Yourself Some Slack)

My commentator was kind enough to say that seeing me with a supermarket carrier bag is something he hasn't seen in nearly a decade. Which is kind of proof that my efforts are being noticed, are making a difference. But I'm not going to lose sleep over it. On balance, I'm happy with my choices and my positive actions. If I pick up a carrier bag occasionally, if I miss recycling something every now and again, I still believe in the same things.  I'm going to keep doing what I do.

A lapse, after all, is not a relapse.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

How to Balance User Experience and Sales Targets

It's an old cliche: designers and UX professionals want to deliver good service, great experiences. Marketers and company owners want to sell products and services, and make a profit. The two parties are always at loggerheads.

Of course, beyond the cliche, is a fact of business life. But the two goals of delivering great user experience and making a profit can be balanced and co-exist happily. It is possible to strike a balance between the needs of the company and the needs of the users (and customers).

How? As with so much else, building trust with the user is vitally important.

Michel Roux's Service (BBC TV)

BBC television is running a series called "Michel Roux's Service" in which Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux Jr introduces seven young people to the restaurant industry with the aim of getting more Brits into the service side of the restaurant industry (for whatever reason, the roles of waiter, sommelier and maitre d' are treated with more disdain in the UK than they are in the rest of Europe, where they are seen as careers rather than something that students do).

Regular readers of ENE will know my fascination with good restaurant service and its relationship to great website user experience; the layers (or facets) of detail; the attention to the smallest concerns (because, after all, detail matters).

A recent program showed an interesting side to restaurant service, highlighting the need to balance the waiters' desires to provide genuinely great service with the restaurant owners' desires to sell food and drink.

In the program, the maitre d' (mentor to the trainees) described the importance of understanding a customer's needs, being attentive, delivering what the customers want, before the customers ask for it. He also talked about being able to use that relationship to upsell whatever special his restaurant or general manager wanted him to sell on a particular occasion.

My first reaction was that this was a cynical manipulation of the customer. After listening to the maitre d' describe it, however; after seeing his obvious enthusiasm and delight in his job, I realised that it was anything but. In fact, the interaction with the customer was genuine, honest, and motivated by providing great service; delivering a great (the word that was repeatedly used was "magical") experience for them.

Indeed, the upsell was enabled by the relationship between the customer and waiter; it was an almost-inevitable consequence of it. The trust made it possible to start a conversation, make a suggestion, to volunteer an opinion.

Building Trust

In interaction design, as in the restaurant industry, customer relationships are built on trust. When trust exists, customers are happy to have a conversation about their options; they become prepared to accept recommendations, to consider opinions.

The same is true of interactions online; the difference is that where there is no human connection, trust and credibility are built on other factors. Interaction design is a key factor in building that trust relationship. When a website asks for more information than is apparently needed for a simple checkout process; when it deliberately or unintentionally obscures the intent of questions and form capture; when navigation or layout just don't make any kind of sense from one page to the next - then trust breaks down. Users get suspicious and - so much more easily than in a restaurant - users leave.

Trust is hard won and easily lost. Getting the interaction right goes a very long way to building and sustaining that trust. User experience is not inimical to sales; it is complementary to it.

Business pressures can be the enemies of usability and UX design; taken too far they certainly can (and do) cross over into bad, manipulative practices (such as anti-patterns and dark patterns). But interaction design can help successfully balance user experience with sales. Of course we want to provide a great experience for our users; and they are our customers, we need them to be buying our products, using our services.

We can achieve that balance by acknowledging the tacit relationship, and being true to it. It's not acceptable (nor, it turns out, necessary) to manipulate users. The good news is that building trust with our customers enables us to sell more without manipulation.

As ever, being genuine cannot be faked.

Related articles:

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A New Name for the Spoon Collection

On February 1st, this blog will have a new name.

The Spoon Collection was only ever intended to be a temporary name, a working title. When I started this blog, I knew that I wanted to write, that I had to write. I was urgent, burning with ideas and passion.  I had to start now.  Stopping to think of a sensible title would have killed some of the enthusiasm and momentum - and so in the spur of the moment, flushed with the excitement of creation, I picked something random, distinctive, temporary: The Spoon Collection.

I do have a small collection of spoons, acquired over a number of years, so it was an apt, personal touch, suited to a personal project.  Now, however, it's time to give this blog a title that's more appropriate to the content and my personal principles.

The writing won't change, the core topics won't change.  And I will continue to collect spoons.

The new name? Well, you'll have to wait until February 1st...

Monday, January 17, 2011

Puncture Repair

Puncture Repair Then and Now: A Personal History

I remember my father showing me how to mend a punctured inner tube, one sunny afternoon at our old house. He got out the dessert spoons (which had a little lip on the handle, perfect for levering tyre off wheel rim) and a stubby yellow crayon to mark the puncture once found. A washing-up bowl half-filled with water stood ready to reveal the hole, spewing bubbles into the cool water. At hand: the patches, their funny rubbery texture; a scrap of sandpaper to roughen the tube so that the patch would stick; the patch glue in its wrinkly little tube; the little block of French chalk with its own tiny grater.

There was something arcane and mysterious about the process. The pleasure of seeing the little trail of bubbles marking the problem. The question of why did the patch adhesive, unlike another glue I'd ever used, need to be allowed to dry before it would stick? And the wonder of grating the French chalk onto the excess adhesive to stop it sticking to the tyre wall. I loved it.

At that time I liked changing an inner tube; enjoyed knowing how to fix a puncture. Years later, out on day rides, when hesitant friends had punctures, I took great delight in swooping in and plucking the thorn from their tyres, patching or changing their inner tube.

Until, of course, I had my first puncture one cold, wet, dark evening on the way home. Under these conditions puncture repair is neither glamorous, nor fun. It's a case of get on with it, get it sorted, and get home.

My Puncture Repair Kit for Commuting

On any ride, my puncture repair kit always comes with me; it lives in a little Topeak saddle pack that I can swap between bikes.  I want everything to be there so I don't have to think about it in the morning.  I've got tyre levers, a spare tube, and some self-adhesive patches (currently the Park Tools Super Patch [at Wiggle or Evans Cycles]). My shock pump (the excellent Crank Brothers Power Pump Alloy [at Wiggle or Chain Reaction Cycles]) lives on the frame or under the saddle bag.

If I have a puncture, I'll just swap out the inner tube; I rip out the offending tube, check the tyre for the spike, and fit the new tube.  It's the work of a few minutes. Job done.

If I have another puncture, it's time for the self-adhesive patches. Whilst I might miss the French chalk, these are great little things; just peel off the backing paper and apply. These don't need sanding or gluing and chalk (which is nice and all, but nice on a sunny day in the garden, not nice on a dark, wet evening by the roadside); they just stick. Again, the work of a few moments, plus whatever time I allow myself to swear at my misfortune.

Oh, I know there are kinds of treatments available to go inside the tubes; goo that self-seals any puncture; tiny little carbon dioxide inflators that will get a tyre up to pressure in a flash. But my rides aren't races. I can spare a few minutes.

Punctures Happen. But Not Often

The fear of punctures is, I suspect, a big reason why people don't ride. The inconvenience, the hassle of getting caught out in bad weather, the dirty fuss of fixing a puncture. Yes, punctures are a part of cycling; they do and will happen.

But I don't let fear of punctures stop me from riding. I'm prepared; my puncture repair kit is always at hand.  I've had one puncture in thousands of miles of cycling. That's a pretty small price to pay.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Hypocrisy of Environmentalists

An interesting (and brief) post on TreeHugger this week about the so-called hypocrisy of environmentalists (In Defence of Hypocrisy - In Search of the Sustainable Double Standard).

I've written about this subject before, because I reject the idea that environmentalism is a black-and-white, all-or-nothing proposition. These issues are much deeper, far more complex than simply the fact of - to use a popular example - having or not having a car.

Car ownership as a measure of environmentalism

Car ownership is such a poor measure of environmentalism. Car engine size is no better.

There are, for example, many different models of car, with varying engine sizes  and fuel types. The conditions these vehicles are driven in, how they're loaded, even how much air is in the tyres - all these considerations will affect fuel consumption, and as a result the carbon emissions of the car.

Beyond the crude - but concrete - measures we could draw from the scientific data about a particular car, there are the harder-to-calculate effects of the owner's behaviour. Someone who drives their car less often will obviously use less fuel - will emit less carbon - than someone that drives more regularly. But several short, lower speed journeys will consume different amounts of fuel than a single long journey at cruising speed.

And carbon emissions are just one measure of environmentalism. A popular, well-reported, easily-understood measure, I grant you, but no more valid because of that. What about pollution, of resource consumption, of lifecycle and disposal? What about electric cars?

It's a complex world out there.

Avoid people that accuse you of hypocrisy

The hypocrisy argument is at best the result of lazy, uninformed thinking - and I for one am not interested in wasting time or energy debating with people like that. At worst, accusing someone of hypocrisy because they don't fit a simplified, inaccurate model of the world is an insidious way of undermining them and their views. Sneakily, it forces people into a tiny pigeon hole and then lambasts them for it.

To use the word "hypocrisy" when talking about environmental views - to allow others to use that word - accepts the suggestion that these matters are that trivial, really are black and white. We get sucked into an argument that demeans and disregards our views. And we can't make any headway against that kind of simplistic, childish, flawed reasoning.

Life - happily! - is just not that simple. If it were, environmentalists would just wear green shirts and be done with it.

Oh, wait. If that were the case, then we'd need to pick our preferred shade of green...

Related articles:

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Better Shopping Cart and Checkout Process

Has The Oatmeal used your e-commerce website?

It comes to something when website shopping carts are the topic of an online comic - or perhaps it's an example of how much more demanding users are today. Either way, The Oatmeal cast his amused, wry eye over website checkout processes and shopping carts in his recent comic (How to make your shopping cart suck less), and between the humour and the swearing, there's a few important, relevant points that any website's checkout process should consider.

Tell users what fields are mandatory - and make it really obvious

This maxim isn't just for shopping carts, but for any type of form capture. Users need to know what information you expect them to provide as early as possible; it sets expectations about the process. Telling the user what information you require after they try to continue really isn't very kind at all. Every forward navigation becomes a test for the user: have they delivered everything you want? Every missed field becomes a perceived slap.

It's a simple situation to correct: give the users a symbol to identify mandatory data capture. Put it in the same place relative to every input field or label. Make it really, really clear. Use colour. Use familiar symbols from well-known sites. The alternative is telling the user off when they try to proceed, or bogging them down with an intimidating screen. Telling the users what you wanted once they've clicked to continue is too late.

And if the information is not mandatory, why are you asking the user to provide it?

Don't insist on registration or account creation (state benefits clearly)

Registration is a barrier to progress; users immediately mistrust a mandatory registration if they can't see any benefits, or are only planning in a quick one-off shop. So don't make registering with your site, or creating an account with you a required step in your checkout process.

If there are benefits to the user in creating an account with your site, advertise them!  Clearly state the benefits of registration: if it's the only way to get package tracking, say so. If it's to help your marketing department, you may want to look at adding some other benefits for your users.

But in general, registration is a barrier to interaction. The irony of insisting on account creation is that it's doubtless driven by the desire to harvest user's details and allow marketing to build a relationship with them.  It's the least likely approach to succeed. By forcing your users to register, you're pushing them away.

Well designed, consistent form layout

Many, many things have been written about web forms and label placement. Suffice to say that your website should make every effort to help your users provide the information you need. Make the form easy to scan, make it obvious, make it consistent, predictable. Misaligned fields, unclear labels, labels that may relate to different fields - all these things contribute to make your form difficult to scan, parse, and complete - making your users less inclined to do so. The harder it is for your users to checkout, the less likely they will be to do so.

The greater the number of users you put off with your layout, the fewer will complete the checkout process - the end result of which is to transform users into customers.

Make checkbox labels clickable

Whilst we're talking about forms and data capture, let's get this one out of the way as well.  Checkboxes and radio buttons are pretty small targets for users to click, particularly if they're not that adept with their mouse. Whether you have text labels or images associated with your checkboxes, make them all clickable, not just the checkbox element itself.

As a rule, it's a good idea to make all of your click targets as large as possible; it makes it more likely that the user will be able to click them first time, every time (if you need some science to persuade you, this advice is an implication of Fitts' Law applied to UI design). And - if you haven't got the point yet - making life easy for the user is what it's all about.

Capturing the same information twice

There is no need for a website to require - to force - users to enter the same information more than once. Period.

Indeed, the only reasons I can think of are laziness and incompetence. In the digital world, it's the easiest thing to copy data, to duplicate information - it only takes a button click, a scrap of code. Any number of websites provide buttons to set the billing address same as the delivery address (or vice versa). Or to hide capture of those fields, or any of the numerous other ways of avoiding encumbering the user with physical world metaphors. Websites can be better than their real-world equivalents. They should be.

Summary: Make your shopping cart forgettable

Ultimately, all of this advice is about making your checkout process as simple, brief and forgettable as possible. In some respects, checking out should be to all intents and purposes unobtrusive; it certainly should not be onerous.

Users are busy; they've spent their time on research, they've made their decision to buy from you; and now they want to get through your checkout process as quickly as possible. Make it possible for them to do that, and they may remember your website favourably. Which is one step closer to them buying from you again.

Related articles

Monday, January 10, 2011

The First Ride of 2011

My cycling year has started well: last Wednesday I commuted by bike for the first time in 2011.

Happily, the first commute of the new year turned out to be a beautiful bike ride. An hour before dawn, the eastern sky was already light, scored with scarlet contrails like recent cat scratches. Later, closer to sunrise, the scratches that remained were inlaid with bright gold. Above them, long clouds lay like half-burned logs, the upper edge covered in ash, the lower glowing dully, ember-red. Dawn itself brought a more orange light, mellowing as the sun rose slowly over the horizon.

The morning was still, with perhaps a slight tailwind that made for swift progress. For much of the ride I was right on the verge of that beautiful cadence that is as close to flying as cycling can get - legs turning the pedals easily, gladly.

After the snow and ice of December, the enforced absence from cycling, this ride was the perfect start to the year. Yes, there will be other rides that are cold and wet and windy, but I will have the memory of that morning, of that first ride. And I will have the satisfaction of knowing that I was out in the first week of the year. An early start to my cycling this year, then; a good start.

I've a fair way to go to reach my target of 2000 cycle commuting miles in 2011 (another 1978, to be precise), but a journey of two thousand miles starts with a single pedal stroke, to paraphrase Lao Tzu. And my journey has begun.

Related articles:

Friday, January 7, 2011

Vegetables Need Not Come in Plastic Bags

Large vegetables, at any rate, don't need a bag to contain them, to help us carry them home. Cabbages, lettuce, I mean. But they're sold in bags, alongside shrink-wrapped cauliflowers, broccoli.

There are arguments about packaging protecting the vegetables; stopping the outer leaves of lettuce or cabbage from being damaged. And yet it's possible to buy vegetables in markets and greengrocers where this isn't an issue. Cauliflowers helpfully come with a thick leafy covering that's not nice to eat, and which helps to protect the nice bit inside. Clever old nature.

Who is the packaging for? Who does it help? It's all very well saying that it's for the consumer if it's true. But much of the time the packaging is for the benefit of the retailer. It's not easy to put a barcode on a cabbage leaf, is it?

Which means that I end up bringing home plastic that I can't recycle, that I have to spend time and effort disposing of, which I didn't want in the first place - certainly not once I'd got through the checkouts. What a waste.

Unless, that is, I shop at the local greengrocers, at the butchers, at those shops that aren't mass-market enterprises that need to wrap, bag and barcode everything because there's no way any of their people can know the price of the thousands of things they sell.

So a vote against veg in plastic bags is also a vote for small businesses, for people that know their stock, who are passionate about what they do. People that I can have a conversation with, build a relationship with. People that will smile and stop and chat when I visit. Most of all, people that will listen and nod when I say that I don't want a plastic bag rather than putting on their weary, fixed smiles, and absently piling thin plastic carrier bags at the end of the checkout aisle.

Vegetables need not come in plastic bags. And I need not buy them from stores that insist on wrapping vegetables in barcoded plastic waste, supposedly to make it easier for me to buy them.

Pretty straightforward, really.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Websites that disable right-click: BT Digital Vault

Not so long ago, I wrote about the website design anti-pattern of disabling the user's right mouse button.

This odious and unnecessary practice is largely ineffective in preventing users from "stealing" copyrighted content (once the main reason trumpeted). It kills user experience, neatly breaking any trust with users (if the website is prepared to prevent me doing this, what else are they up to?), and also gives the impression of an amateurish, unprofessional company.

So imagine my delight this week when, researching online storage, I came across this wonderful example of what not to do on the BT Digital Vault website.

The message itself is completely useless; it doesn't give any feedback about why the "function" is "disabled", nor what the user can do about it;  it's a door slammed in the user's face without rhyme or reason. In this particular case, it's also inexplicable. The picture above shows the entirety of the page; there's no obvious copyrighted content.  The one positive note is that it doesn't imply that the function has been disabled as the result of a user action.

But I think my (least) favourite thing about the message displayed in the alert box is the exclamation mark. To my ears, the website is shrilly shrieking at me. The silly thing.

For the record, I closed the browser window without registering.

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Monday, January 3, 2011

Christmas Gifts for Cyclists

There's a long-running joke about giving and receiving socks for Christmas. This year, to pre-empt the joke, I asked for cycling socks. Happily, I got exactly what I asked for.

Endura Coolmax Race Socks [at Chain Reaction Cycles]

I chose these blue socks as they go nicely with my current preferred colour scheme. Although they claim that one size fits all, these are a teensy bit snug for my not-very-large size 8 feet. I suppose they'll stretch with use. And they are very comfortable.

Defeet Aireator Worldchamp Socks [at Chain Reaction Cycles] and SockGuy Elite 4" Socks (in World Champion White) [at Chain Reaction Cycles]

World Champion socks, with the rainbow stripes that the cycling world champion wears!

I'm a long, long way from being a world champion, but I love these socks.

Do these socks make me a better cyclist, make my commute easier? Hardly.

Do they make me smile, lift my spirit, make me feel that fraction more inclined to cycle on those cold, dark mornings? Absolutely! And some mornings the difference between talking myself out of cycle commuting, and getting on with it, might be as small as a pair of socks.

They're already a regular feature in my commuting wardrobe.

Oh! And it turns out I am cool enough to wear Twin Six.

Available in the UK from Always Riding, hurrah!

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