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?

I’m sorry, I’ll read that again.

So, nearly three months after I carelessly clicked ‘upgrade’ from my hosting console rather than WordPress itself, causing the CMS to go up in flames, I return!

It didn’t take long to fix in the end, once I’d located the problem.

Thing is, I’m a little bit sad it didn’t die. I didn’t want to leave a website hanging, but properly whacking in the HTML googlies would have been a relief.

I want, need and should start from scratch. I want to re-think, re-architect and reconsider what I put here. I’ve got all my content backed up so a dead website would have been just the trigger.

On the other hand, the last thing I need right now is yet another project.

I’m already building two websites for others, and desperately, desperately trying to write a book, and the workload is sucking all the love out of it.

In the last three months I’ve also moved house three times, across three cities, so y’know, forgive me if I’m not full of whimsical anecdotes right now.

Baby steps. I will not be tested beyond my ability. That’s the promise. Don’t forget to look up.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.