exo

Thu, 14 May 2015

user experience

User experience, or UX as it’s commonly shortened to, is not as neutral a quality as one might think. Everyone wants to provide a good experience for their users, it’s just that often it seems to be the means that justifies the end.

The most recent example of this is Facebook Instant, where, in order to improve the user experience, Facebook publishes content from websites directly. You never need to leave the app to view it and it loads much faster. The UX is, by the standards of speed and uniformity, better. And in those narrow terms it is.

It’s the narrowness of those terms that bothers me. I worry that UX is becoming something of a trump card in these discussions that partly shuts down consideration of the wider context. By encouraging people to prefer things published by Facebook Instant, which you assume is the idea of it, the experience gets slicker but, almost certainly, less diverse.

This is not to say that I think we should not care about ease of use, just that before praising it we should ask if we had to give up something worthwhile in its service.

posted at: 20:47 #

Sun, 26 Apr 2015

on trying to be informed

This year I thought I will download and read all the manifestos (manifesti?) for the parties in 2015 general election. So far, so fail.

The first point is that for at least for the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems the link to their manifesto’s wasn’t as “right there in big type on the front page” as I’d expected it to be. Given that for all three of these parties I was looking at the site on the day of their manifesto launches that was a little surprising. It wasn’t that it was that hard to find, just not as shouted about as I expected.

The Conservative one was my first attempt, it being the first to launch. I got about 25 pages in before the constant nagging “where are the references” at the many claims made wore me down and I stopped. Perhaps I am old fashioned in my need for at least some attempt to back things up with evidence.

Next, Labour and a week later I can remember almost nothing about reading twenty something pages. I have a vague association of it being more positive than the Conservative one but little else.

The final one I tried was the Lib Dems whose manifesto team was clearly on some sort of page count related bonus scheme because it’s enormous, mostly because there are lots of pictures. I got further page count wise through this but pictures, and lots of “here is a list of bullet points, here is the list expanded”.

A common theme was spending time thinking “how? How do you propose to do this thing?” Even where a how was stated it was very much “This is a problem. This is a thing we will do” and nothing to explain how the thing would actually solve the problem. I don’t expect a full explanation of every single thing but something a bit more robust would be nice.

So, I got a bit dispirited and stopped. Which slightly saddens me but I’m not sure I felt like I was making myself that much more informed. There’s still a week and an bit to go so I may go back to it. I should probably at least look at the SNP one but it’s not an enticing prospect.

posted at: 17:26 #

Thu, 06 Nov 2014

house hunting for geeks

Write a scraper that generates a feed you can subscribe to.

If you ever need to explain to someone why being able to program is useful then an unpacked version of that sentence is likely to do it. As more and more estate agency sites offer to sen you emails or generate feeds of searches it’s going to seem a less useful skill but it’s not. The joy of being able to write your own thing to aggregate any sort of data is you can control what and how it aggregates.

When we were house hunting the scraper I wrote was pretty crude in that it just used price and location to whittle the list down. However as we were looking in one small town that was enough to reduce it to a manageable amount of information. What the scraper did do that was more useful was it aggregated the information from several different sites and then distilled that into an easily scannable format:

Lawmill Gardens, St Andrews, Fife KY16 : 225000                                 
http://tinyurl.com/cl84a24                                                      
   Lawmill Gardens, St Andrews, Fife KY16, Property for sale - 3                
      bedrooms : Offers over £225,000

Given that only one or two a day turned up it was very easy to scan them, see which ones looked interesting and then click on the URL.

posted at: 21:04 #

Thu, 30 Oct 2014

soul

There are things you own that do their job, that you appreciate because they work and don’t provide you with much reason to complain or notice them. And then there are things that make you happy every time you use them. The Cotic Soul is one of the latter.

I have a distinctly battered one I bought second hand six or seven years ago. It’s one of the few things I own I would unquestioningly replace were anything to happen to it. No looking at alternatives, just straight to the website to order a new one.

Regardless of whether it’s a quick forty five minute hack round the local trails or a seven hour endurance race I know there will be at least one moment in every ride where riding it is just sheer joy. Mine is set up to be nimble, with short forks and, by modern standards, narrow bars so you can really chuck it about. It means it gets a bit out biked when things get really steep or rough but for most riding you can fly at stuff safe in the knowledge that you can finesse your way out of trouble. And for the sort of twisty singletrack that constitutes my favourite sort of riding it’s a delight.

But mostly it is a bike for reminding you why you love bicycles.

posted at: 21:21 #

Wed, 29 Oct 2014

disoriented

Maps. Nowhere in the guide books do they mention that the Japanese do maps differently. It’s only several hours into wandering round Tokyo that we work out the reason the plentiful maps in the street are confusing is they are always oriented relative to the where the map is placed. You can see the logic in it but when you’re used to maps having a consistent orientation the brain isn’t interested in logic, it just flaps.

posted at: 22:07 #

Mon, 18 Aug 2014

gujō odori

“On 32 nights between mid July and September they dance in the streets. We have to go”

And so it is we find ourselves in Gujō-Hachiman.

Or to be more accurate, in a layby just off the highway that passes by the edge of Gujō-Hachiman. It turns out the highway bus really doesn’t like to stray too far from the highway. There’s a taxi waiting at the bottom of the steps but we let the retired American chap who also got off the bus have it as he seems phased by this arrival into town. Five minutes of carting luggage in the sun later we curse ourselves for not thinking of asking the driver to send a second taxi.

Because it turns out that lots of other people find the notion of a town where they dance in the streets appealing we’re in the only room in town we could book. It’s a business hotel on a different edge of town to the highway. They are incredibly helpful with booking us a taxi back to the bus stop the next morning - some mistakes you don’t make twice. Even more helpful with phoning up the bus company to book our place the next morning when it turns out the English part of the website is informational only; our travel arrangements to get to Gujō-Hachiman are a little lax having become used to the efficient embrace of Japan Rail.

After a brief rest we walk into town in search of food, pausing to notice that there are fish in the drains. Later reading reveals that the town is famous for its water quality as well as the dancing.

Having eaten we go in search of dancing. We find a parade. And people handing out free beer. Five minutes after wondering where all the lanterns the crowd are carrying come from I’m handed one on a stick and it’s explained to me I should carry it until I’ve had enough and then pass it on. It’s ridiculously welcoming.

And all the while there is a dragon, people dancing in Noh masks, music and some wheeling of a small float with a very ornate, and heavy looking roof. This slowly makes its way through the town till we get to the stairs up to the temple. At that point the float is lifted onto shoulders and up we go.

There’s more dancing when we get to the temple and then some speeches. The lanterns are collected and everything comes to an end. It’s not the participatory dancing we’d read about but it’s been lovely.

We wander round the corner and in the middle of an open area there is what I can only imagine is the Japanese equivalent of a bandstand. On it are a dozen or so people with various, I assume, traditional instruments and an old chap chanting. Surrounding it in concentric circles are people dancing. The same dance. It’s reasonably slow and feels semi formal. The closer to the middle you get the more practised the dancers are. We watch and after a while the music changes and the dance with it.

Colva joins in while I take bad photographs. She comes back to explain that someone had very helpfully, in excellent English, taken her through the moves before cheerfully saying to just have fun once she’d roughly got the hang of it. Once again with the welcoming.

A few minutes in to my attempt I find myself wondering if this is what it feels like to be at a Ceilidh without the benefit of a Scottish education. I am surrounded by people who seem to effortlessly follow what turn out to be more complicated than they look steps. As we leave at around 10 it’s beginning to thin out but then this is one of the quiet evenings. In a few weeks the dancing will go on till 4am. Three nights running.

Sadly there is no time in the morning to visit the museum of plastic food. As we leave the people in the hotel give as a mug as a present.

posted at: 20:32 #

Fri, 15 Aug 2014

vegetable dining

“It says vegetable dining on the sign, it’s bound to be a vegetarian restaurant”

So, we go up the lift to the third floor - the tall building with a different bar, club or eatery on each floor is one of the unexpected quirks of Japan - and are greeted with a cooler full of fruit and veg. Promising. We mutter “futatsu”, hold up two fingers and are seated. Water and a menu arrives. A menu entirely in kana and kanji with the emphasis on the latter. A bit of puzzling and then we ask the waiter to at least explain the sections. After some back and forth in his limited English and our minimal Japanese we get starters, salads, noodles, tempura and beef.

Not vegetarian then.

We take the only option available and confidently order one thing from every part of the menu apart from beef. The waiter looks a little confused and slightly apprehensive but scribbles it down. It’s mostly excellent apart from a mysterious and revolting vegetable unknown to us.

posted at: 19:15 #

Wed, 30 Apr 2014

I would take 500px

If one is to believe the internets then Flickr is doomed, going downhill and just not the place to share photos anymore. Given this I thought I’d go and try something else. In this case 500px which has a reputation as a serious photography site.

So, it looks quite nice, although the gap to Flickr isn’t what it was, and at first glance it is indeed full of serious photographs. Very serious and mostly very boring.

What’s lovely about Flickr is, and this may be less true than it once was, it has personality. There is quirk and frivolity to it and that quirk is relatively easy to find via groups. One of the reasons I look at photos is to see things that are novel and different, odd perspectives and unusual subjects, photographs that make me think about how I look at the world and what I point a camera at. Endless shots of lovely landscapes, long exposure rivers and beaches, macro flowers and insects and a dozen other cliches are not what I’m looking for. These are what 500px mostly surfaces and I just glaze over.

I did hack out a few ‘things against a starfield’ photos as a result of 500px which was a worthwhile exercise but even there so many largely indistinguishable photos of trees or mountains with the milky way across the sky. Technically impressive but constant exposure to them dulls the effect.

And how much HDR? I am clearly in some sort of minority here but HDR does nothing for me and 500px is rife with it. Terrible, awful, hyperrealism style images with all the colours dialled up to eleven.

500px is worthwhile in that it’s a window into what a chunk of people like and I see styles and types of photos I’d otherwise not choose to see but as a source of inspiration it’s a bit of a dud.

The reason I find Flickr more useful as a source of the unusual are groups which helpfully segment the firehose into self selecting areas of interest. There’s plenty of groups on Flickr that have the same sort of thing as 500px but the sheer number of them results in little niches, often with strong selection policies which ensures a consistency of vision to them. A consistency of quirk and the resulting inspiration.

posted at: 22:00 #

Fri, 04 Apr 2014

no

I’ll not be voting for Scottish independence come September because I think the entire thing is predicated on a notion that’s on the wrong side of history.

Nationalism has to be about making people think their country is different than others and with that comes the notion of others; them and us. We will be better off without them. And really, that just makes me despair.

Others is such an awful way to look at people. It’s about pride and difference and exclusion and fear. By defining people as other you make it easier to dismiss them; they would say that, think that, do that; to not engage with them, empathise with them, see the commonality or learn from them.

This isn’t about pretending people aren’t different, it’s about how you treat the differences; the level at which you look at the differences. I am different from everyone else, I cannot help but be. Above that level and the strokes you draw to distinguish have to become increasingly broad and resultingly increasingly inaccurate. The map increasingly is not the territory if you like. At a country level there is as much difference within the country as there is outwith it so to say we should be independent because we are we and they are they sits ill with me.

I say the wrong side of history because great things are, on the whole, done by people coming together, taking advantage of their diversity of skills, ideas, experiences and knowledge, to do more than they can manage on their own. By standing up and saying we are apart, in however small a way, you make that harder, you make it easier to say we will solve problems in our way, we will solve our problems. It reduces us.

So, no.

posted at: 19:45 #

Fri, 27 Dec 2013

counting

Of all the things that the increasing move to digital allows one of the most pervasive is counting. Websites count how many people visit, they count which articles are popular, how many people like things, how many people buy things. They also count how long people spend on the website, how often they come back in a month, how long they spend on individual pages. They count everything they can.

Once they’ve counted they can use those numbers to work out what’s popular, what sort of headlines result in more people reading an article, or at least clicking through to it or linking to it. That information is then used to tailor the content of the site, to decide what to focus on and how to present it in order to increase the numbers. The sophisticated sites present the same content slightly differently to different people and compare the numbers. If it’s an online shop you can count people at each step in the process of buying something to see where those that don’t buy stop, and then use that to try and move people further through the process. It’s all terribly useful for improving your site.

And it provokes a sense of unease in me.

Unease at the way things are reduced to the countable, at the use of numbers to justify doing things, unease at how it makes things into a puzzle to solve.

All this analysis is useful and you can learn a great deal about how people use your site but I worry about what feels to me like the increasing primacy of numbers in making decisions. I worry that not only are we relying on numbers too much, we’re trying to count things that can’t be and making judgements based on those numbers. Mostly I worry that all this counting only answers the small questions but encourages to concentrate on them because they can be answered.

posted at: 16:49 #

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