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?

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…

Stamp collecting

I thought since my own National Health Service is being roundly decimated* I’d write a bit about my recent exchange patient experience in a Latvian hospital.

Slow down, beating hearts! I wasn’t ill – I just had to prove it. Because I volunteer for a charity that works with disadvantaged children – day to day, this involves a strenuous workload of losing at Uno for five hours in a row – I had to acquire some offical documentation which stated I could breathe, had a blood pressure, and didn’t have TB. Apparently my ability to move and talk, and the massive vaccination scar on my left arm, was not evidence enough.

I had been directed to a health centre a few minutes walk from my house. After some preliminary investigation I decided the best course of action was to pay them a visit, wearing my best Latvian. You will be pleased to know that since we last discussed the matter, my Latvian language skills have progressed a little further down the road to fluency: I can now add to my list of essential phrases ‘I work with children’ and ‘Please can I have this?’, the latter accompanied with a hopeful gesture. With these two phrases waiting on the tip of my tongue and a bit of paper stating the exact form I required, I approached the receptionist.

She was the first and last person I met in the health centre who spoke any English. This was not unexpected but it certainly added a fissure of unwanted excitement to the proceedings. I performed my piece for her; she told me to go ‘over there’. I duly went ‘over there’ where about twelve other people were sat. I joined them, dug out P.G. Wodehouse’s Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen from my bag – could you find a book less Latvian, or rather, more conspicuously English? – and waited. An hour later, when I’d all but reached the end of Bertie’s adventure (he got engaged, had some comic japes with an animal, a fight with an aunt and was right in the pit until Jeeves came to his rescue – who’d have thought?) everyone else was gone. I had not been looked at once, never mind twice.

Wondering if I had gone to the right ‘there’ after all, I approached a doctor and recited my little speech to her. (As well as not speaking English, every professional I encountered from doctor to telephone answerer was a woman.) She gave me a variant on the classic Latvian Death Stare – more benign, but mixed with flushes of ‘you’re an idiot’ – and took me back to the receptionist.

Yes, my instinct proved right. I was not meant to be there, but there. There turned out to be a previously undiscovered room just to the right of reception. I creaked open the door having no clue what to expect on the other side. There were two woman who looked liked some degree of administrator. Time for that BAFTA awarding-winning recital again. This time my performance was met not with directions or death stares but questions.

Questions! I had not bargained on questions. I had my name, personal code (like a national insurance number, needed to do anything official here) and bit of paper with Precise Document Name on. What else did they need to know? Quite a lot apparently, so here I caved and rang the wonderfully bilingual head of the kids’ centre, and asked her to do a spot of interpreting. I know not what they said, except at the end of their brief conversation I was issued with an A6 booklet, a sheet of A4 paper and two small slips of paper barely a few inches square, and a demand for 10 lats (about £12). All my bits of paper had been photocopied to within a smudge of their life. I completed some personal details in my book, and in return I was given a stamp on one of the pages.

Achievement unlocked. I had now progressed to level two. I was instructed, in Latvian, to pay my money and then ‘come back when I was done’. So pleased was I that I had understood this instruction that I forgot to ask the crucial question: done what?

Paying I could do. I went to the receptionist. She relieved me of my cash and put two more stamps in my book. Uncertainly, I turned my attention to my bits of paper. Through the dark haze of photocopier ink I could just about make out a room number on each of the smaller slips. Not knowing what else to do, I decided to try my luck in the first, Room 214.

I eventually located this in the depths of the building and knocked on the door. No answer. But my earlier unnecessary waiting was instructive after all. I knew that whoever lay behind that door was with another patient and I simply had to wait, but this time with a magic appointment slip. We’ve been here before I thought, and dug out P.G. Wodehouse. About 10 minutes later it was indeed my turn.

I was gestured in, and Laurence Olivier himself would have swooned at the way I gave my ‘I work with children’ lines in perfect iambic pentameter. I was, however, entirely uncertain what the doctor was going to say or do to me. I sat in the patients’ chair at the side of her desk and tried to give a look that was a mix of amenable and expectant. Before long I had been examined and it was confirmed that I could breathe and my heart was beating (but not too fast). At least, that’s what I assume. The important thing was that I got two more stamps and was allowed to leave.

It was a similar story in Room 19, though I have even less idea what happened in there. I knocked and was called in instantly. After a standing ovation for what I hoped would be my final performance, the doctor invited me to take all my clothes off. The consulting room was a long rectangular affair on the ground floor. Along one of the long walls ran pane after pane of glass windows with no frosting or curtains, looking straight out onto the street. Or to put it another way, the street was looking straight in. There were some blinds, but as the window sill was lined from left to right with pot plants, it seemed unlikely that they were ever used.

I decided to defrock one piece at a time until she was happy. Surely she didn’t need me quite as God made me? Luckily not. (But if she did, how many stamps would I get?). In the end my state of undress was about 50% – I will not trouble you with the details – and I stood in the middle of the room while she answered the telephone. I turned my back to the window and waited, wondering if I could just reach over and stamp my slip myself.

Before long, we were back to me, but I still had no idea what I was meant to be doing, or even where I was. It is a very odd feeling indeed to be standing semi-naked on public display and have no real idea why, or any way of asking. The doctor took matters, and me, into her own hands and guided me towards a large brown plate with metalic lines across it that was pinned to the wall – right by the huge window, of course. She arranged me face first against this cold sheet and then ran away. There may have been a flash, but in my bemused confusion I can’t be sure.

She came back a couple of seconds later from a closet at the other end of the room. I can only assume I was x-rayed. If so then, teeth excepted, I’ve just had my first exposure to the revealing rays and I barely noticed! Ah well, all she has to do now is stamp by book and then –

Except she didn’t stamp my book. She told me to come back the next day. Return I did, only to find a different doctor in Room 19. Brilliant – an encore! This doctor stamped my book and slip, and victorious I returned to the admin people with all my ink and paper and did the hopeful/expectant look that features so prominently in my repertoire. The admin person looked at my vast collection, then promptly went back to the x-ray person to get a couple more. By this time, I estimate, I had about 11 stamps.

On her return she gave me a couple stamps more for good measure and then, the magic word – viss! All is done. You may go, officially certified as unharmful to children. So here I stand now, with all manner of awards and decorations. Now no one may doubt my Uno-playing qualifications, or, it seems, my ability to negotiate the unfamiliar world of post-Soviet healthcare. So far.

(I should say this much – despite my diversions into exaggeration and irony, all the staff in the health centre were helpful and understanding, slowing down their speech and gesturing where needed to help me to comprehend what delights I faced next. I don’t mean to demean them in any way. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised about how conceding they were to me. So, in the unlikely event that you go to the effort of translating this, thanks.)

*For those of you struggling with this assertion, I refer you to the Guardian Style Guide entry on use of Latin phrases: Some people object to, say, the use of “decimate” to mean destroy on the grounds that in ancient Rome it meant to kill every 10th man. [However] as our publications are written in English, rather than Latin, do not worry about any of this even slightly.
Secondly, I would note that the NHS, and everyone it serves, would suffer greatly from being reduced by even 10%. (I am not a supporter of the cuts that are currently being inflicted on the UK in the name of government.)
For those of you trying to work out what ’roundly decimated’ looks like, just understand that 10/π looks decidedly unhealthy and we’ll leave it at that.

Then work came.

I’m at work.

Not at work in my kitchen or at work in a cybercafe*, but at work in an office with other people, overseen by someone who will eventually pay me for my efforts. It’s happened so fast and so smoothly that I can barely believe it, instead believing that God knows what he’s doing and I should just go with it. I mean, this is the second time (out of two) I’ve been plonked in a position which such speed and such defiance for the normal rules I can only call it God’s work and be thankful.

I’m doing a few weeks UX temp work. That’s exactly what I did in London, only in Latvian. Yeah, I don’t know either, but it seems to be OK. I’ve subcontracted the proper translation to Inese and the rest I can read or use Google for. If only the user journey was about ordering coffee, then I’d be fine.

I’m told the UX industry in Latvia is where London was maybe 5-10 years ago. That doesn’t make it easy though because technology has moved on so fast that classic problems have new solutions now. Can I still say that a dodgy navigation system can be fixed by showing a breadcrumb trail when so much content is dynamic? Or that one should always put related links in the right-hand column when the whole Left-Middle-Right structure is no longer so rigid? And can it really be true that “Don’t use sharepoint.” is still my top UX recommendation? (Yes it can.)

*I can only assume that the youth of UX here has dragged up this old prefix from the depths of the internet glossary. I like it though. Maybe it’s time for a revival. Cyberfone. Cyberplayer. Cyberbook. Down the information super highway I go. If you’d like to cyberjourney through cyberspace with me, sign the guestbook below.

Don’t feed the troll

Over the next few days I’m going to make a few changes to my facebook profile, apps, settings, privacy, content, likes, pokes and all the other granular and unseen ways its crept into my life. In short, there’s going to be less, a lot less.

This isn’t me trying to quit facebook in a storm of indignation. I’m all too aware that I need facebook, but I need it for a set number of things, and anything beyond that it isn’t going to happen anymore.

It’s more that I’m trying to wrestle back some control. I don’t think that I have ever enjoyed using facebook. I joined, reluctantly in 2005, back when it was a student-only website. Almost overnight I stopped getting invited to parties. When I asked why I wasn’t told about some spectacular event the response was inevitiably “but it was on facebook”. A couple of week’s protesting that people could still invite me via text or in person fell on deaf ears and so I signed up.

Gradually I got sucked in. I posted more status updates, I even uploaded a few photos. I played a lot scrabble. Once I left university it became a useful tool for keeping in touch with my friends. I could find out their phone numbers and birthdays, and organise reunions. Crucially at this point facebook was not – scrabble aside – a destination. I went there to find out something (e.g. Sarah’s phone number) then carried on doing what I was trying to do (e.g. call Sarah). In retrospect, I guess this was the sweet spot.

Because shortly after I started work, in 2007, things began to change. Firstly, the number of people using facebook increased astronomically. It was no longer just a student thing. Secondly – linked to this I’m sure – commentators starting fretting about facebook’s value, about how they were going to monetise all these people freely giving the kind of information a market research company would kill for. And that led to facebook becoming about data rather than people.

That’s what it is today, data. Personal networks, employment networks, likes, interests. If it’s not directly saleable like hobbies (Buy Manic Street Preachers tickets here!!!) then facebook will encourage you to strengthen its data pool by ‘connecting’ with others, or tagging your friends in photos. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that facebook isn’t for me anymore. I’m here for facebook, feeding the data monster, and that’s not what I signed up for.

Let me pause here for a moment and say that I’m fully aware that I saunter through life complicit in my own exploitation. It’s my belief that, say, my job, my landlord and the Manics all exploit me and I let it happen – because I think I get something in return. Even though I see my hourly charge-out rate vs. my own salary and weep, I accept that in the face of having money to rent a room (at an inflated price) and go to gigs (and buy crappy merchandise). Someone else is profiting from my behaviour but as I feel I am too, I find it hard to be indignant.

It was the same with facebook. I’ve always known that when I upload pictures to facebook, the data monster claims copyright. I think that’s ethically wrong, but I’d conceded that point because it was an easy way to share snaps with my friends. The benefit still outweighs the cost. Compare that with one of facebook’s more recent innovations: face recognition. More than once I’ve seen photos (sometimes mine, sometimes others’) in the sidebar, and the monster asks me if I know them, or will have a guess at a name and ask me to confirm.

Who does this benefit? It’s not me. If I can identify the person, maybe they’ll benefit from being tagged. But what if they don’t want to be? It’s not my business to make that link for them. Now, if the monster used this technology for good it would offer me the chance to ‘search for untagged photos of me’. Then, I get to decide. I am in control and I benefit. But with the current model the only person who benefits is the monster.

(Also, I didn’t agree to have my photos served up at random across the site, even to friends. Alright, I probably did ‘agree’, but that in itself is an issue. Facebook privacy settings are complicated, and could well be in breach of European law. Europe vs. facebook does a great job of explaining all this. On requesting his personal data from facebook, the founder of the site was sent 1000 A4 sheets’ worth.)


My interests page before and after.

Then there’s interests. My favourite music, books, films and quotes. I copied mine off Myspace when I first joined, but when I added to them I was initially disappointed that facebook didn’t automatically alphabetise them. To do so would have meant basic machine reading. Myspace did it by using commas as a separator, it never built entities and automated pages around the interests itself. That’s helpful data crunching that benefits me. The monster, by indexing my interests fully, has a different agenda.

Yeah, yeah, advertising. I can’t really object to that, I see that it has to happen. I do object to an already incomprehensible news feed being further clogged up by spam. (I’ve got that Manics album. Trust me, I have.) There could be a special defence for interests though. That’s what some of the first social networks were built on. I met fellow Manics fans on a forum, and on Livejournal, where I could enter my interests as tags, and view other users with the same tag. That makes perfect sense on a site full on strangers, but far less so given that facebook is supposed to me about people I know.

Maria likes Super Furry Animals and Black Blooks. I know. She’s my friend. She also likes lazy Saturday mornings and waving at people. So again, who does that serve, except the monster who no doubt wants me to add some more valuable interests to my profile?

The pages themselves, I suppose, have some use. But I personally don’t use facebook fan pages as a source of information. Either there is no new information (e.g. a seven year old film) or I rely on twitter, email and friends. So once again, no benefit. (Actually, I’ve kept three because I do rely on facebook for them. So they stay.)

Facebook, using the like plugin, now follows me around the internet. And if I could remember my spotify password it would be listening to my music too. The monster has escaped from the cage, as if AOL’s Walled Garden of the 1990s suddenly grew great vines of poison ivy, which drag me back wherever else I try to go.

Or to put it another way, there’s been an article floating around the internet recently about how facebook is becoming the black hole of the internet. If something like 10% of all time online is being spent feeding the monster then it’s no wonder that we say we’re ‘on’ facebook. We’re not ‘on’ the BBC. I visit the BBC, I read the Guardian. I am on facebook. I think some of that is because facebook is an extension of the self, and so works as ‘I am on the train’, but it’s also a reflection of how much time is being spent.

I think I spend 10% of my online time on Twitter (there it is again). But the difference with Twitter is that for the moment at least, I feel in control. I chose who to follow, and it’s easy to unfollow if they’re boring. When Twitter does suggest to me, it tends to be unintrusive and far less demanding than the monster. I still feel like I’m using it. Facebook is using me, but from now on I’m going to be far less helpful.

Monster, you can keep my birthday but not my year. You can have my whimsical status updates because no human can understand those, so I suspect machines can’t either. You can keep, for now, all photos I’ve tagged friends in so they can still have them, but no others unless I explicitly want them shared. Any photos of me I want to keep I’ll save and de-tag ones that I don’t like or aren’t really of me. I don’t mind new tags at all, I just may not keep them. I really like photos, but not stored forever on the data monster.

Henceforth I’ll have no interests, but I might keep the odd quote. Events, well, no one I know uses facebook for events any more because it’s so easy to be non-committal. Only clubs and societies – where it doesn’t actually matter who turns up – seem to bother. Take that, 2005.

All this without even whinging about the structure and layout of my data, as it’s presented to me, or how incredibly hard it is to delete my interests – not just in terms of process, but also having to ‘unlike’ the Manics feels wrong. Facebook is part of my identity more than I like. Facebook’s IA is terrible, though emotionally canny, but that’s a whole other post.

I know, thanks to Europe vs. Facebook, that after my deleting spree, it make not truly be gone. But my compromised self doesn’t really care. I just want to use facebook for keeping in contact with old friends and have some degree of control over what I hand out. I’ll make sure people can still find and recognise me. I’m not stupid enough to think I run away from the data monster. If anything, the internet will become more like this, not less. What I will do is ensure that what little bits of me it does eat don’t taste very nice.

Cuttings from his glory days

I’ve walked Las Ramblas but not with real intent.

I’m a big fan of the local library. Not library as I might usually mean it, not the slightly over-heated, out-of-the-way, never-have-what-I-want-in cubby holes that I treasure dearly. But the other local library, the streets of London and beyond which I tread daily, living and breathing the present but so often the past, or the made up.

Here, in Tufnell Park I am in spitting distance of the following:
– The house George Orwell used to live in
– The Seven Sisters which Brett Anderson left ‘for a room in a seaside shack’.
– The Hotel Splendide which inspired a Bernard Butler bside
– The Good Mixer which cooked up Britpop until it boiled over
– The St John’s Road, Archway where Spike Milligan used to visit his friend Harry Edgington
– The house where Spaced was filmed. (I even shop in the same Londis as Tim did.)

The locations in songs, TV and books captivate me as much as the emotions, and send me on stupid Saturday morning missions to seek out a brick wall somewhere in Highgate. Cast the nets a little further, to the rest of London, Worthing, Sheffield and the list could go on.

You know, I walked around Merrian Square in Dublin, and sure people know Oscar Wilde lived there, but who else spots the estate agent Morrisseys on the corner and Yeats’ house opposite, and sees Cemetry Gates made flesh? And then I walked down Las Ramblas in Barcelona thinking of Orwell and thinking of Nicky Wire feeling inadequate in his steps, and I felt inadequate in both their steps, but was somehow thrilled, as if I was doing a secret thing which only I knew about.

Often it’s me on a treasure hunt but sometimes it’s accidental and it catches me unawares. Take this week. I have been reading High Fidelity by Nicky Hornby. It’s set around here, Crouch End, Seven Sister Road, Camden, Kentish Town. Familiar terrirtory but I don’t recognise many of the road or shop names. I know Crouch End well so there’s no need to seek it out.

But then, the book finds me. On Friday evening a friend of mine from work, Rachel, invites me to see her band play in Camden. Suddenly I’m in the Hope & Anchor and the Purple Turtle and seeing Rachel sing, meeting the band and their friends and having awkward but fun conversations and the memory of the book, of Marie’s gigs comes crashing in. Waves of sensation – something like deja vu – make me laugh and I find myself asking my new aquaintances what music they like just to keep the illusion going. It’s not even as if the personal situation is similar, it’s the same thrill as Baracelona – being in a joke that no one else is.

Saturday morning I walk to Oxfam Books & Music in Kentish Town to see what I can dig out for my scruffy book pile. The guy in the shop is berating his younger assistant: “I can’t believe you haven’t seen Zulu! How can you not have seen Zulu? Where have you been?!” I take my books to the counter and he critiques them, all the while continuing to tell his assistant how great Blondie are. As I’m paying the assistant is asked “OK, top 10 records from the 80s?”. On my way out I ask them both if they’ve read High Fidelity. No, says the man. Yes, says the assistant. “Well,” I said to the assistant, “he is definitely Barry.”

She giggles, I leave. But not before I catch the expression on her face, which I know well myself. It’s the joy of being in on a joke that you can’t explain and you couldn’t even if you wanted to.

What’s my name?

Returning to some user profiles I created two years ago raised a wry smile back at myself. Never one to let the chance to sneak in a subtle nerd/fan reference slip by, my wireframes, user journeys and user profiles are full of sly nods to whatever I’m crushing on at the time.

User profiles, example below, tend to sketch a person with reference to a particular project e.g. a website. They’ve got a name, a location, backstory, tasks thoughts and feelings. For me their names have much wider significance than one might think at first.


Picture: Rough ‘n’ ready user profile

Two years ago, ‘Matthew Osbourne’, ‘Adrian Healey’, ‘Jenny Lewis’, ‘Michael Young’, and ‘Donald Trefusis’ (or variants of) were very busy people, while I was up till 1am most mornings watching QI repeats on Dave. Not a coincidence.

When I’m profiling, I sometimes have genuine user data, but sometimes I’ll need to design in the dark, and sometimes I’ll have practical tasks but I need a personality to pin them on. These insta-names give my developing persona somewhere to begin. Knowing that I don’t have forever to create 6-10 new people adds to the impetus to get some ego-aspects going quickly.

If I’m using real people as a basis I’ll jumble up names and surnames as a cover, because the aim isn’t for the client to recognise their origin; they need to be new people, portmanteaus of their genuine users as well as my fictional friends. Across projects I’ve also used mixtures of the Manics, Conan-Doyle characters, the Comedy Store Players, Suede, Chalet School novels and many more. The profiles that come out the other end are in no way these people. They’re a very useful starting point for personality and a happy repository for in-jokes that are too tiresome to list here.

It’s also a bit about my identity. When I go down a fandom rabbit-hole, I take my whole world with me. I always wonder if a client or a colleague would spot my references but they never have done yet. If they did I’d be happy and embarrassed at the same time. Pleased someone gets me, mortified that my nerdiness might have crossed a line too many.

On one occasion I used names taken from my own fiction writing. Now, no one would ever recognise these and bring me to book as it were, but they still came with all the benefits of a pre-fab identity. Only, as I handed them over to colleagues and clients, Tom, Pippa and Rachel were changed. Words were put in their mouth that they would never say, lives were given to them that they would never lead, and I found it strangely hard to handle. But “Pip would never have a haircut like that, she’s far more of a 70s child” does not go down well with a designer on a tight deadline. In the end I forced the project to change their names because I couldn’t cope.

Now I stick to fiction and bands, all jumbled up in my cultural reference pit. Jenny Healey gets a lot of fun because she’s an extension of a fictional character. She’s mine to use at will but since I based her on a Fry character it’s not so personal when others take control.

However, naming personas remains a secret pleasure and Jenny won’t last forever. No doubt I’ll keep finding new obsessions, they’ll keep leaking, and in a few years time it’ll be a good a map as any to find out where my mind’s meandered.