Not Evangelism

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.