Don’t copy, link

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.

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.

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.

The words we’ve heard

After much procrastination, I can present The illustrated Brett Anderson, a rather messy series of infographics (delusions of grandeur, right there) based on Brett’s most frequently used words.

Geeky method and stuff
It was pretty simple really. I took all of the lyrics to every officially published Suede, The Tears and Solo song and ran them through a frequency count. I also manually checked each one (kill me now) and adjusted for declensions, congugations, plurals etc. An information science degree does not prepare one for the sheer tedium of this and I nearly gave up at Suede, but felt guilty about abandonning The Tears and solo material. I think this means I have issues.

Almost all words which occur more than 20 times are included, and quite a few down to 4 occurances as I chose. I discounted all pronouns, bits of sentences that had no meaning (e.g. because, so) and variations of ‘to be’ (e.g. am, were). I didn’t include ‘la’ or ‘awwwwhowwww’ because that would have tipped me over the edge, and there’s a few more like ‘make’ that seemed too abstract to bother with. I wanted to include phrases like ‘you and me’ but I let my data integrity slide in favour of leaving the house occasionally. Basically it started off as a statistical exercise then I got bored and wanted to draw doomed spaceshuttles.

I drew all the pictures in Powerpoint. This is because I felt like giving myself an extra level of misery and is in no way an excuse to cover my poor design skills.

Anyway, here are the results.

Pretty pictures

You can download the whole lot as a PDF, should you be so inclined.

Why?
I don’t bloody know. There’s something distinctive about Brett’s lyrics, Suede in particular and I wanted to investigate. In essence I guess it’s that whole suburban apocalypse thing, which I hope is reflected in the images. I’m not sure if this exercise brought me any closer to understanding it, but awwwhowww well.

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.

Conform

Much as we try, humankind has yet to find an alternative way to gather semi-structured information from its fellows, so sticks to complicated, confusing, consequently soul-destroying forms. (And, I guess, helps keep me in a job.)

But employed or not, they’re a bugger, pure and simple.

It struck me one balmy afternoon that unlike many other interaction staples, (e.g. navigation, search, links) that there’s still not a definitive design pattern for forms. Not that those other three are always done correctly but there’s a common agreement about what good practise is. I think we’re still getting there with forms.

One obvious reason for this is that every form should be bespoke. It needs to be thought about as its own individual case. What was right previously might not be right this time. In fact, going in thought-blind is probably watch causes at lot of the problems.

But even though individual attention is needed there are a few overarching principles and patterns that I like to include. I believe they make the form easier to complete (which in turn decreases drop-off rate yadda yadda ).

Ulitmately we’re trying to assist the user and reduce the risk of errors. So:

Structure logically according to the task.

First things first, why do we need the form? If the information can be gathered any other way, don’t subject your users to it. They’ll only hate you for it.

Oh, and pre-populate fields where you can. Nothing’s more annoying than entering information unnecessarily.

Once you’ve established that form and all its content is absolutely necessary, structure it according to what it’s trying to achieve. If it’s long, break it into sections and include progress indicators. A task with an end in sight is more managable than one than a potentially infinite one.

I’m not going to witter on about the best way to do this – it really does depend on what the form’s for. But at the form field level, I think there’s a strong argument for consistent design patterns.

Tell the user what they have to do.

Each form field or field group should have a title.
Form title

Indicate whether the field is mandatory.
Mandatory fields

Add explanatory text.
Explanatory text

Offer further help e.g. rollover tool-tips or text blocks.
Tooltip off

Clicking the tool top shows the text block with help information.
Tooltip on

Hide fields the user does not need to complete.
Fields hidden

The secondary field isn’t shown until it’s been established the user needs to complete it.
Fields shown

Help the user to avoid mistakes and assist them when they do.

Using pre-submit error validation.

As the user types the system verifies their input, in this case 8 characters, alphanumeric characters and spaces only.

Success, or not, is highlighted and the user can make corrections before submission.

Using post-submit validation.
If fields cannot be verified on the fly, display the number of errors at the top of the page, and mark the individual fields that need correcting.

Clearly highlight errors and give clear instructions how to fix them.
Provide explanatory text against all error fields, whether using pre or post-submit validation.

That’ll do for starters. Play nicely now.

Information is a gorgeosity

One side effect of having a computer which takes 20 minutes to boot up is the free time I get to flick through Information is beautiful each morning. True to its word, its a beautiful book and before long I decide it’s time to try my own hand.

I’m an Information Architect. Without information I’m only an annoyance to RIBA. Can’t be that hard to construct a visually tantalising self-explanatory diagram, can it? Turns out it can.

First, I needed some data. Figures and/or relative relationships seemed to be the way forward, only I didn’t really have a strong set of either. What I did have was a long-standing amusement over the way characters in Stephen Fry novels interlock. Not just in a Bret Easton Ellis manner where we see the same people across different publications, but where different elements of semi-autobiography are split and twisted for different purposes forming a tapestry of half-truth, fact, madness and breakfast.

It’s not something that’s easily explained in words so it seemed the perfect subject for my info graphic.

But, as any idiot except me could see, that was the easy bit. So we’ve got our complexity, big deal. How to make it simple? Here’s some questions I tried to answer:

What are the important parameters and relationships?
Should some characters be given more weight than others?
How many dimensions (time, truth, relevance, head-hurtingness)?
Am I trying to make the complex clear, or show just how confusingly complex it is?

To begin with I went with something very rigid. I kept it monocrome as I wanted to get the structure and relationships records before I added that extra layer of distraction. Easy enough to read, I think, but it didn’t show the overlaps and confusion clearly enough. Also, using a fact->breakfast scale of confusion is (1) a very geeky Fry thing to do, and consequently (2) only makes sense to me. I happen to like it, even named a site after it, but it’s not exactly accessible.


Bigger.

So I switched to a more complex structure which had lots of detail, but turned out to be a nightmare to design. This was partly because I was over-complicating the different between ‘protagonist’ and ‘love interest’, placing too much emphasis on the source texts and trying to maintain a time/truth dimension to it when really that’s too subjective to record. Bad moves.


Bigger.

The last attempt takes a more subtle tone. It’s character-focused, which the previous iterations weren’t. This is important because the whole point of this infographic is the morphic overlapping characterisation. Good.


Bigger.

But they’re characters, so what? Lots of people are called Steve. So why is this interesting? Because it’s about love, friendship and learning. It’s human. I only care about the way these people link together because I am emotionally engaged with their emotional lives. Let’s show it.

Lastly, I needed a way to show where each character was featured, otherwise there’d be no indication that this was conflation of plots, not just one. This was tricky as I’d already overcomplicated things once and didn’t want to go down that road again. Colour-coding sure, but how? Each element needs to be readable at a glance, but it mustn’t over-power because it’s a secondary feature. A little dot either side of the emotional link. It just about does its job, I think.

From my list of considerations, one, Am I trying to make the complex clear, or show just how confusingly complex it is? still remains unanswered. The concept I’m trying to express doesn’t lend itself to divisions or clarity and I don’t think it’s stands up on its own. Unless you know Fry’s work it’ll be meaningless; prior knowledge is needed.

In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best choice of data. It could show just how confusingly complex it is, but actually I think that’s ideas above its station. It’s just confusing!

One thing’s for sure. When Fry publishes the next volume of his biography this September, I’m going to need to redraw. Things will be more complicated than ever.

It’s not what’s wrong, it’s what’s right.

So Vincent Flanders’, author of Web Pages That Suck (an educational tour around some complete car-crashes of websites), has said that from a design perspective, there’s little point in looking at good websites, as they are unlikely to inspire.

Now I love ripping sucky websites to shreds as much as the next person, but I wouldn’t dream of developing my designs purely on a what-not-to-do basis. Good websites are exactly the sort of sites I want to look at because they encourage me to raise my game in a creative, non-prescriptive way.

Whenever I get involved in a website redesign, I’ll look at websites that fall roughly into two categories:
1. Great site, simple as, for any number of reasons e.g. design, navigation, cross-channel integration
2. Sites that might be viewed as ‘competitors’ to my site because they operate in the same business arena, have similar content, or are actually companies in direct competition.

I’ll look at these sites to understand what’s being done well, across the internet as whole, as well as more contextually. Apple might have a beautiful site, but doesn’t sit next to a government quango in terms of business space. So to balance out, I’ll also see if any other government quangos have a really inspired way of using social media, for instance. (This is an area where government can often go wrong, by trying to appear too ‘with it’, which Apple gives the appearance of doing effortlessly). Some principles of good web design are global, some are contextual.

Looking at these sites does not put me off or dishearten me, but drives me to be as good as them. My thoughts are about what can I learn and how I can apply it, positive aspirations. If I were to look at only bad websites, I would quickly feel angry, depressed, and unchallenged. If I’m unchallenged I won’t put in proper effort, I won’t be striving for anything, because I know I can do better than the sites featured on Vince’s site.

That’s not to say that rules aren’t needed. I think part of the reason I disagree with Vince over the value of looking at bad sites is because I’m already well aware of the fatal mistakes websites can make and what should be done to avoid making them in the first place. It’s my job to know. So maybe I’m not the audience he’s trying to reach with this.

But I would say to anyone who’s interested in web design at all that learning from others’ successes is just as important as learning from others’ failures. After all, no one learned to write by reading Dan Brown.*

*yeah, it’s a needless pay off, but I really don’t want to read anything he writes, ever again. It hurts.