Not Evangelism

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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