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I did some more company based blogging:

Content structure for content strategy

One of the key messages in the IA world at the moment, in the wake of the rise of content strategy, is that planning content structure is just as important as planning, um, content.

Indeed, many would say they were inseparable, but while content strategy looks at what needs to be said, content structure looks at how it can be formatted, shared and re-used.

Continue reading.

Post live blogging

I did a lightning talk at UX Bristol. Here’s a rough idea.

Change ruffles feathers

Whenever a new technology comes along and with it, new forms of behaviour, you hear a chorus of dissenting voices. From blaming the youth of today to citing an evolutionary threat to human existence, the accusations fly.

Here’s a recent screen shot from Google highlighting just some of the things that are currently ‘killing the art of communication’.


Aren’t we really just bemoaning change? Conflating ‘new’ with ‘bad’ and ‘old’ with ‘better’, forgetting that what is now old was once cutting edge.

Douglas Adams summarised it nicely:

“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

– Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

That’s what we’re doing. And it’s what we’ve always done. When the typewriter became the default way for people to write, we were queuing up to pronounce the death of style, the art of letter writing, and even our own humanity.

“The art of letter-writing has been banished by the typewriter, and these Byron letters may now be examined with as much veneration as one would regard an Egyptian hieroglyph.”

The Pall Mall Gazette, 17th Dec 1896

We’re also becoming much less adept at talking:

“[Do you] realise how much the increasing use of dictation and the typewriter is doing to limit and corrupt the art of speech? That method of correspondence has killed the art of letter writing.”

The Times, 14th Feb 1935

And the loss of the quill is detrimental to us as a species:

“In the spacious days of the quill, letter-writing was in very deed the writing of letters – no tapping of the keys of a machine, no barking of short lengths of jargon into the ear of a shorthand writer or the mouth-piece of a Dictaphone. The rapidly-quickening whirl of the daily round has, with centrifugal violence, shot off the laborious quill-driver into the outer darkness. In this stead, reigns the Robot [and] with the quill goes much of grace in performance and delight in craftsmanship.”

The Times, 21st August 1923

There’s also a matching pattern in education, and probably in every other field of human endeavour.

But the fact is, we communicate instinctively. Our methods might change, our style and language might evolve, but we’re still a social species. We worry about whether we’re becoming less intelligent, antisocial and immoral, blaming technology for this supposed decay. But all we’re really doing is judging ourselves against inconsistent standards which shift with every generation.

However, it is also blindingly obvious that our methods of communication do change. More interesting than applying a crude value judgement to our evolving technology, is thinking about what influences the way we use and develop these new habits.

It’s not the technology, it’s us. And just as our habit of bemoaning change has followed us down the years, so have some of the pressures and influences that cause those changes. Three of the factors that spring to mind are celebrity, acceptability, and the balance of power. There’s cross-over between them, but broadly speaking:

Celebrity: Our fascination with the beautiful people and how they live their lives leads us to imitate; or occasionally the way a community organises themselves around a certain technology.

Then: advertising a product e.g. cigarettes.

Now: Stephen Fry on Twitter (and getting stuck in a lift), Benedict Cumberbatch and Sherlock becoming one of the focal points of Tumblr.

Acceptability: What the social conventions are of the day – often disputed and seen as part of our General Moral Decline.

Then: incorrectly addressing a superior; listening to jazz music.

Now: getting out phones in restaurants, txt spk, drunken photos on Facebook.

The balance of power: Who has access to a new technology, and how they might use it to further their own cause.

Then: the Gutenberg press, 17th century coffee houses, mass-produced paperbacks.

Now: the drive to get the whole world online in the belief it will empower them; Arab Spring activists reporting and organising on Twitter.

“It is important to understand that new platforms of social media didn’t cause Arab Spring but played a role of communication that aids the revolutions in the long run.”

– Saleem Kassim, Twitter Revolution: How the Arab Spring Was Helped By Social Media

Technology is just the tool. While it might change how we outwardly behave, it’ll take a real shockwave to change our inner nature. Among all this hand-wringing about our intelligence, social activity, and moral behaviour, I think we already know the answers to this: we’re fairly simple, generally social animals who will communicate with whatever method is to hand.

So, no. Technology isn’t killing communication. And if it isn’t driving it either, what influence can UX designers and the whole digital industry have? What should we be concerning ourselves with? Within the framework of ever-shifting technology and stubbornly human humans, I think there are a few areas where we can and should have a voice.

Findability: How do we structure and organise our information so that it can be found by people who are looking for it, without them having to wade through irrelevance? Of course, irrelevance is subjective, so how we serve answers to people with different questions and perspectives. Information science and psychology has led to the Dewy system, taxonomies, folksonomies, tags, indexes, free text search, curation… but the appropriate structure depends on the format. How can we help users navigate through the new and old, the fixed and temporary?

Permanence: Will something be where I left it? People generally want tangibility and solidity of information structures. But the web isn’t a permanent fixture. Snapchat-style messaging further erodes permanence, and then there’s the EU ruling about search results. Who should say when something is/isn’t available? Should we keep everything forever, even if it’s outdated or untrue? Which leads to…

Verifiability: How can users determine what is true and what isn’t? Who has authority – in content and in position? What if there are two competing truths? How can we represent these fairly e.g. the climate change debate? We might grumble that Wikipedia is inaccurate, but at least we know. 75 years ago, Encyclopaedia Britannica was considered the ultimate authority, but its imperial tone and single point of view – never mind its accuracy – wouldn’t be any more appropriate on the web today.

These are the same questions which were once asked of our librarians, then the early architects of the GUI and the usable web, and now to us. The same human conversation played out across a different technological framework.

In short, if we were once information architects, the growth of digital means we’re now communication town planners: helping to build structures which react and respond to the way we communicate today, and the way we’ve always behaved.

UX your thinking

Hello, I’m not going to apologise for being a slack blogger, because I’m not sorry.

Anyway, I wrote a think for my employers called “UX your thinking” about how UX can be a mindset as well as a practice. You can read it here.

This week, Stockholm!

In praise of Norwegian, a budget airline company who flew me to Stockholm and back this weekend.

The whole experience was great compared with other budgets carriers, in the general sense that they didn’t actively obstruct every part of my journey with overzealous process, demands for money, or both. They were just, you know, nice and pleasant. Respectful rather than implying things would be a whole lot smoother if I wasn’t there at all. You all know who I mean – and there is more than one of the them – and have enjoyed many hours in their capable hands, I am sure.

Anyway, Norwegian, as well as being decent people also had on-board WiFi. Maybe this is a thing on proper long-distance international flights but I’d not come across it before. So I took great pleasure in telling Twitter and Tumblr that I was 10,000 metres high and IN THE FUTURE.

And not only was there WiFi, but it worked. And by worked I mean it didn’t do any of the following:
– require me to register, or fill in any personal details, at all;
– take minutes to load a single page;
– cap me in any meaningful sense.

All of which are common features of free WiFi on the ground.

OK, there were a couple of issues. It struggled a bit with some https sites because the authentication process got disrupted. Email worked, twitter website struggled but the app worked. And, naturally, it blocks streaming sites like iPlayer but I expect that on a volatile signal. It also blocked Victoria Coren’s website – was it the gambling or the pr0n that triggered it, I wonder? – but let’s be honest, that’s hardly crucial mid-flight viewing, even for me.

On the way home I wanted to see if it kept the same standards. It did. The signal was a little flaky. It probably worked about 75% of the time, but I can’t begrudge them that, being in the clouds and all. (I wonder if it was connecting via the cloud, ho ho ho shut up.)

I also spent more time on their web portal and that’s when it went from a pretty good experience to impressive. It’s the little things. In some situations having a machine follow you across the north sea might be considered a touch intrusive. But when you’re in a metal cupboard in the sky (that description © John Finnemore) and ultimately desiring little more than to be back on the ground, then it’s rather sweet.

Here’s where I am on my journey:

And here’s my specific flight status. 45 minutes to go before we arrive in a rainy London. Although, that weather report could just be static text. Either way, the tiny considerations like that were what made it.

Like I said at the beginning, it’s not just that they had working WiFi, it’s that the whole experience was thoughtful. They could have really hashed this up and I would have still used it, in a grump, bemoaning the fact I was supposed to be on holiday but even though I’m 10,000 metres in the air I still can’t stop swearing at computers. But it wasn’t like that. The whole experience was so gentle and intuitive, it made me want to tell everyone about it.

One final point. See the bottom half of that second screenshot? That’s a video on demand service. It’s early days; there are very few programmes and it’s just on a trial basis, but – it is the future, isn’t it?

The centre cannot hold

I am seriously wondering about this site.

What’s it for? I mean, I have to have a website, right? I design for the web. My livelihood depends on me understanding, persuing and changing this very environment, as it leaks into mobile, TV, device indepedent, responsively designed what next areas?

So it would be remiss of me as a practioner not to be here. And also, I like the internet. Of course I’m here. But here, this domain, this URL doesn’t really matter anymore.

Here’s two statements I regularly make to clients.
1. People won’t come to your site just because it’s there.
2. Good content travels.

Now, I know that most of the hits this blog gets are from Facebook. I also know that most of the people I have on facebook don’t really care about the nitty gritty of UX. Which means, in all honesty, that my semi-regular ‘professional’ posts don’t serve much purpose except to be marginally reassuring should I need to apply for a job and someone bothers to do a background check.

I used to post a lot more about the books, music and films I was in to, but I moved all that to Tumblr, because (a) it has readership and (b)it makes this place look more professional in its absense.

And of course, I’m on twitter. In fact, I’m anywhere but here.

So if I’m not here, why will people come? And even if I write the best blog post ever, no one will see it so there’s no chance of it travelling and hits arriving from secondary sources. That’s happened to me once, with my dodgy illustrations of Brett Anderson lyrics.

A new plan then: to write not for this website, but for two seperate Tumblrs. One will be UX focused, the other my existing fangirl one. I might set up a third one for more thoughtful/faith-based posts, but not yet. I’ll aim for one post a week, then two. Discipline, then frequency. I’ll copy stuff here, because the one thing it does have is permanence.

But the strategy has changed. This site is an archive. It is not where I live.

What is it you do again?

Over the last couple of months, for a variety of reasons, I have been asked to state and explain exactly quite what it is I claim I do for a living. I have, therefore, in the last couple of months realised just how hard it is for me to s and e exactly what I d for an l.

After all, I’ve only been doing this job, if you can call it that, for six years. It’s simply unreasonable to expect me to know already.

No, OK, it isn’t. And I know I’m not doing myself any favours by setting myself up as a moron who can’t even give a name to the source of her income, never mind one of those elevator pitches I was taught to rehearse on my very first day of consultancy training.

But the thing is, I’ve been forced into it. It seems I’ve spend these last six years standing twixt a turbulent ravine (or more realistically, tumbling into it) as I try to bridge the gap between happily doing my job with colleagues who understand, respect and complement my discipline, and explaining it to those who don’t know UX from OXO.

It feels a bit like this:

Buns are hurled on both sides and neither actually knows what the other does, beyond a few stocks phrases and TLAs that are never explained. (Really, what is a GANNT chart? I’m still not sure I know. And doesn’t it have an H in it somewhere?)

In repsonse to this, I’ve been on the defensive. I’ll tell someone flippantly that I sit in the corner with crayons, or that my real job title is Solutions Magician, or if I’m feeling really generous, go on a rant about how nothing in the WORLD would EVER WORK if it wasn’t for us MATRYS playing attention to the poor users oh won’t somebody think of the children, as if we were the first tribe on earth to equate simplicity with happiness.

It sucks, basically and we should all stop it. Let’s actually believe that most people in an organisation are there for a reason (most), and recognise that just because we might not personally understand the precise machinations of their daily tasks, that doesn’t mean it’s worthless. Or, more commonly, let’s stop pretending that just because you only have a simplistic view of my role DOES NOT mean it is so simple you could do it your-bloody-self. (Sorry, sore spot.)

So, to kick things off, here’s a nice, neat summary of the role of a UX Architect (yes, I have finally reconciled myself to that title. Boo.):

Ah, well, yes. Like I said, I don’t actually know. I only realised this in the last few weeks when, due to a mixture of career development and a freelance role involving selling my skills, I’ve had the ear of people who (a) know what it is I do, and can probably articulate it better than I can; and (b) aren’t easily impressed by a self-depreciating joke, which is always my fallback in these situations. People want to know, not because they don’t understand, but to check that I do.

And I do, but I’ve never had to say it. Get on with it, yes. Produce results, yes. Write documentation, yes. Change the world, nearly. But never, ever, have I had to tell someone who is positive, knowledgeable and sympathetic about my role how I perceive and practice it.

Turns out, it’s rather hard. I fluff my lines, forget terminology, ramble on failing to make any point at all. Put me in front of a client who needs a reduced version, or a testing candidate who needs reassuring, I’m fine. But with someone who knows my role inside out, I end up sounding like the feeble graduate I think deep down I still believe I am.

So next time an uninitiated bod asks me what it is I do, I’m going to practice on him. Try and explain, properly, kindly and clearly. And probably bore him to death, but never mind. I need to practice and he needs to stop calling me crayon kid. Although I do quite like that. It puts me in my place.

More than I thought

This is weird.

Sorry for the lack of posts recently. I thought by now there would be a few things I could write about, projects that have finished that I can link you to and reflect on.

I mean, a few weeks ago I was looking at

  • a) the story of how I did a fortnight’s usability testing and conceptual designs for an SME, and all the fun things I learned doing that
  • b) the story of how I helped place the Latvian Bible on Kindle
  • c) the story of how I experimented with Tumblr as a publishing platform, and how that will influence the publishing of my novel.

So plently to write about. And I still could. But the odd thing is that none of these little activities have really finished yet. I don’t want to write half a story. Far beyond my expectations rather than me dallying about and doing something fun but ulitmately pointless, as is my usual style, these things have grown.

I can’t tell you how it went with the SME because I’m still working for them. I can’t tell you about Kindle because I’m still up to my neck in publishing and UI restrictions. I can’t tell you when my book will be online because there a small chance, the slimmest chance you understand, that someone might publish it properly.

Completely, overwhelmingly, unexpectedly things that have just dropped into my lap. I feel very blessed and provided for right now, I can tell you.

…20 days to go… …that’s sad…

Between desire and reality

The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed a slight change in the wallpaper. For many a happy year the top few pixels of my beloved weblog were emblazoned with the somewhat opaque Fact & Breakfast the supposed title to all the musings that lay within.

Underneath sat a P.G. Wodehouse quote: No good can come of any association with anything labelled Kathryn just so the reader was sure they’d arrived at the right place, given the only other mention of my name is in the url itself.

I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I could just show you:

But now, alas, no more.

I picked the name back in 2009 when I needed ‘proper’ website (I use the term lightly). It comes from the usual dated obscurity I thrive on: the opening title to A Bit of Fry & Laurie series four.

I’ve long admired their mix of stupidity and sarcasm. Between fact and breakfast madness lies was full of brusied language and mangled semantics and its shortened version summed up my content perfectly: the occasional ‘proper’ article mixed with all manner of nonsense I needed to get out of my head. And between the two there surely is madness.

It’s served me in good stead. It’s proved as incomprehensible as much of the content that sits beneath it. And yet… the darling site needed an overhaul because it broke several IA rules (101: let the user know where they are. 208: Use clear, understandable language., 305: don’t expect everyone to live their lives via comedy quotes from the 1990s.), it didn’t look right in IE9 and… you know what? I’m looking for a job and I didn’t want to put people off. There you go: your favourite left-wing slapstick lover is MERCENARY AT HEART. Damnit, John, we’re not in Uxbridge anymore.

So, it’s gone. But it’s still all over the site. Partly as tribute, party because I’m not going to edit out every reference to it. If anything the stupidity lives on its Tumblr sister site. But for now we’re boring old Kathryn Hegarty. Some comfort at least that if nothing else you finally know my name.