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.

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…

Eyes wide shut

I’ve written a book. Past tense.

It’s a novel about split identities and what happens when they collide. It’s about how the internet may or may not be ruining your life. It’s about faith and love and other Big Things that plague us to the grave.

It’s currently resting in my draw. I’ve read it so many times I can’t bare to look at it for a while.

So maybe you’d like to look instead?

I’m after a few people to read it and give feedback. Honest feedback.

If you’re interested I’ll send you a copy if you think you can
a) read it within the next few weeks, couple of months.
b) tell me what works and what doesn’t, and be specific.
c) not laugh at me for too long afterwards.

I’ll send anyone who does a little thank you in the form of a book token so you can buy something decent to read.
(If I get bazillions I may not send it to everyone, but on the basis that that’s not at all likely to happen, don’t let that put you off.)

Comment below, email me on or find me on various social networks.


This one’s for the freaks

Version A
In an attempt to evaluate the user experience of the popular blogging platform Tumblr, I have undertaken to publish a work of my own devising, thus experimenting with its user, admin and customisation features. Because, apparently, we’re all so short of spannable attention, I’m going to publish it scene-by-scene three times a week, till the end. I will attempt to gain followers (gasp). The result of this experiment will also influence when and how I publish my novel Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homeland.

Version B
Because of reasons I am uploading Star Cross-dressed Lovers a spoof jukebox show, a Manic Street Musical, if you will. (It’s built around Manics songs. Of course it is.) It’s got James eating pies, Nicky nearly destroying the world, Sean being evil and best of all, Richey isn’t dead (much).

If Tumblr and I get on, I’ll use it to publish my completed (in the sense that I’m not bloody doing it again) typo-ridden novel which is NOT called Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homeland, but it probably should be.

You can visit the Manic Street Musical site any time you like.

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.

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.

The sitemap falls apart, the breadcrumbs cannot hold

Talent borrows. Genius steals. I greatly enjoying messing with great works for comic effect.

Past works include: What have the NHS ever done for us; In a flash, Jeeves; IA the musical; Henry V in V minutes; and Star Crossed-Dressed Lovers (a Manic Street Musical). All these lie in various states of completion on my desk.

The lastest then twitter hashtag #uxpoetry (of which I have sole use, hmm), sparked by Keats as an introduction to a UX link.

This seemed like great fun, and crucially didn’t involve annotating wireframes. So for my own posterity more than anything, here’s my timeline of #uxpoetry nonsense. Very sorry.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever, its loveliness increases it will never pass into nothingness till it’s deleted to reduce costs
~ Keats, Lines from Endymion

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro sales targets mori
~ Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum est

On the ning nang nong where the cows go bong and the monkeys all say ‘boo!’ there’s a ironic gif farm from 1995
~ Spike Milligan, On The Ning Nang Nong

I am an architect, they call me obstructrive. I am a pioneer, they call me a luxury
~ Manic Street Preachers, Faster. Not technically poetry, I know.

And the two I am most pleased with:

There’s some corner of a foreign field that is for ever Advanced Search […] In that rich earth a richer content concealed
~ Rupert Brooke, The Solider

Follow your spirit, and upon this whim, Cry ‘God for JQuery, Standards, and Saint Tim!’
Shakespeare, Henry V ‘Once more into the breach’.

And so, dear friends, the end.

No one expects

Internal monologue on my writing task:
“Ok… ‘Our three most favoured research methods are contextual observation, surveys, diary studies and… DAMN.’ Right, ‘Our four most favoured research methods are…’ [pause] ‘AMONGST OUR RESEARCH METHODS ARE’… ”

Thank you, Michael Palin.

I love my capacity for swallowing this stuff because it resurfaces itself just you need something to shape your thoughts (and indeed, your new company website).