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Month: September 2011

The trouble with online identity

I think that most people who design and work with online communities have, by now, learned that identity is an important issue. I’ve certainly been harping on about it for years, and have repeatedly found that it’s a tough nut to crack. People say that they get it, and that they realise that it’s important, but then they’ve repeatedly shown that they didn’t get it.

Now, I don’t know if this is normal behaviour or not, but when people repeatedly don’t get what I’m saying, I find it frustrating. I’ll keep digging around until I find out why they don’t get it, and I’ll keep trying to improve my mental model of the problem until I can find new ways to express it. After all, a clear and understandable expression of the problem is vital if you want to get past the blocks that are in the way.

Every now and then, getting past the blocks makes me realise a gap in my own thinking, and a lot of the time it comes down to language. I don’t mean that I’m writing in english and you’re reading in french (although you might be – I wouldn’t know!), but that the word identity comes with too many meanings. Particularly when you’re a fuzzy, imprecise UX guy talking to rigid, precise developers. Thankfully, having a fair bit of fairly arcane coding in my background (fast fourier transform code and neural networks – particularly Kohonen SOMs) I am often able to speak enough developer to get by.

It was stepping back from working on online communities to work on our product that brought me to something of a realisation about how I’d been communicating something about communities. Or more accurately, how I hadn’t been communicating something.

I’d been banging on and on about how identity was important, meaning one thing. The folks I’d been working with had heard me banging on about identity being important, but hearing something entirely different. Identity meant different things to different people on the team, and that was muddying the waters – I was saying identity was important and that we needed to focus on it more, and they kept going off and focussing on the wrong thing. What they were focussing on was what I’m going to call the system identity, whereas I was talking about what I’m going to call the self identity.

But what’s the difference?

To the developers, the purpose of identity was separation and identification of individuals. It was a means to say “this person in this system is the same as this person in that system”. A way to reliably tell who a person is, and to match up that person in one systerm with themselves in another. It’s how the software tells one user from another and can tell who people are. I’ve taken to calling this one the system identity.

To the social and community folks and the front end users, that’s not what identity means. To those people, “identity” is how each user expresses themselves. It’s a means to say “this is who I am, this is what I do and this is what matters to me”. It’s a way to express what it means to be who you are. I’ve taken to calling this one self identity.

So, using this terminology, you can make it clear what kind of identity you’re referring to.

System Identity is knowing that the UserID 1138 is Jed (and only Jed) and user 1149 is Bob (and only Bob). It’s how the system differentiates you as an individual from other individuals. It’s used by the system itself to differentiate users and associate them with other things.

Self Identity is Bob’s profile letting people know that he can help them file their TPS reports on time and that he likes skiiing. It’s also Joe’s profile letting people know that he likes muffins, playing squash and going out for drinks on friday nights. It’s an expression of what being Jed or Bob actually means.

Both are valid uses of the word identity, and both are extremely relevant in social or community software. You need a strong model for both forms of identity if you want your online community to thrive and be successful. You need to be able to reliably tell users apart behind the scenes, but you also need to allow users to differentiate themselves and present themselves in a manner of their choosing at the frontend.

You must be able to clearly distinguish users at the backend through their system-identity, but you also need to let users distinguish themselves from each other in the frontend through the way they choose to express themselves and present themselves. This latter method of distinction relies on the self-identity. It might be through personalised avatars and signatures, or it might be through and expressive username.

In a real world analogy, the system ID would be the passport or ID card. It’s an official document that states who you are. It’s typically reliable and is useful for proving who you are, but generally says little about you as a person.

In the same real world analogy, the self ID would be your skills, your personality, your fashion sense, your taste, your interests & your hobbies. It says a lot about you as a person, but doesn’t necessarily serve as a unique identifier.

One says “I am unique individual 1138. Nobody else is unique individual 1138. I am only unique individual 1138.”

The other says “I am bob, I like beer and fishing. My tastes are these and you should read what I say because…”

For an online community (or social network) to work, you need to understand both of these and have an appropriate approach to dealing with them. You need to be able to reliably differentiate between individuals, and those individuals need to be able to reliably express why you should care what they say.

Speak Out With Your Geek Out – SF/F

Today’s “Speak Out With Your Geek Out” post covers the fairly broad topic of written Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Yes, I’m a fan of that kind of thing. I even go to conventions.

I can’t pinpoint when I first really got into SF. It’s kind of been there my whole life. I don’t have many memories of my really early years, but one that I do have is playing on a really cool slide for a long time. It was just me and my mum there, and my dad and my brother were elsewhere. It turned out that elsewhere was in a cinema watching Star Wars: A New Hope. I think we were on Jersey at the time, but I wouldn’t like to bank on it

Despite not having seen the film, I recall that moment quite well – as well as attempting to draw pictures from a film I’d never seen. I’m not sure when I actually got to see it, but it was probably quite a lot later. But I think from then on, if not from earlier still, I was hooked.

As a kid, if it was space related, I was probably interested. If it was science fiction or fantasy related and on TV, I’d want to watch it – cartoons, kids tv drama, films… you name it. I was the same with books, too. I gradually ploughed through my dad’s collection of classic SF (by which I mean things like Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Larry Niven – that kind of thing), and through some of my brothers. I also started gradually acquiring my own, aided greatly by semi-regular visits to Hay-on-wye to stock up on second hand books. Libraries helped too, as did the Invicta second-hand bookshop in Newbury. There was never a shortage of old SF in there.

Along the way I strayed over into Fantasy, too. I dabbled with Horror occasionally, but only found myself appreciating it when it was paired with science fiction or fantasy. My tastes in genre have stayed largely that way every since… although I’ve largely drifted away from Military SF and towards more big idea, tight story SF.

Similarly my tastes in Fantasy have changed over the years, too. I used to read the odd bit of it here and there, but it was David Gemmel that made me sit up and take note. It was the first fantasy that I read which was gritty without being bleak or dull, and which did a good job of keeping pace without getting to repetitive. I still read a lot of other fantasy, but it was the odd bit here or there – when there was anew David Gemmel or a new David Eddings.

So now I was reading mostly SF, with the odd bit of Fantasy… and I thought that was how stuff would stay. But one of the “odd bits of fantasy” that I read was a little book (hah!) called “The Dragonbone Chair”, by Tad Williams. That was a gamechanger for me. It’s still right up there in my “favourite books” list, although I’ve not read it for many years. Last time I tried it was still too familiar after too many reads. When I say “too many reads”, I mean that I’m on my third copy of the book after the first two fell apart through a combination of ill treatment (reading in the rain, anybody?) and just plain overuse!

For a while after that, epic fantasy started to come out of the woodwork. Robin Hobb appeared on the scene with the Farseer Trilogy and the Liveship Traders – which I also devoured with a passion. Authors like K J Parker soon joined the mix with “Colours in the Steel”, starting a steady stream of protagonists who turn out to have moments that could be seen as… less than heroic.

Then came George R R Martin. Of course, these days he’s big news because of the TV adaptation, but reading the first book of “A Song of Ice and Fire” was like a gale of fresh air… blowing the airborne corpse of a previous victim straight into your face. Suffice to say that certain developments at the end of “A Game of Thrones” were somewhat unexpected – as viewers of the TV adaptation discovered in Episode 9.

But I digress. I should actually be summing up by now. So, to conclude:

I like losing myself in a good book, and the really good ones will be shoved into the hands of all and sundry. When it comes to written SF, I seem to be quite effective as a memetic infection vector. If I like a book, I’ll identify others who I think will like it too, and won’t shut up until they’ve read it too.

In recent months, for various reasons, I lost the ability to read books for a while. I won’t go into the details, but reading is such a big part of my life that it was pretty horrific to lose the ability. I could read the words, but I couldn’t make them stick. I had many other symptoms, some of them quite unpleasant, but not being able to read and enjoy a book was the killer. I went about five months without reading a single book, and a couple of months before and after where I was scraping through maybe a small book a month.

I’m still a long way from being back to my old reading pace, but I’m getting there. It took me about four weeks to read George R R Martin’s “A Clash of Kings”. About a week later I’m about three quarters of the way through “A Storm of Swords”, and I’ve read a couple of graphic novels in between.

I reckon in a few weeks I’ll have caught up with A Song of Ice and Fire and will be back to my old reading pace. When I’ve managed that, I have a backlog of books to read, and an SF reading group to rejoin.

I’m rather looking forward to it.

Speak Out With Your Geek Out – LARP

In my previous post I got one of the more socially acceptable topics out of the way… so now it’s time for the full in the face, double barrel shotgun of geek:
Live Action Role-Playing, aka. Live Roleplaying, aka. LARP, aka. LRP, aka. Freeforming, aka. Freeform Interactive Theatre, aka. Cross Country Pantomime.

You might think I’m joking, but all of the above are names I’ve heard applied to the hobby.

Yes, on occasion I dress in silly costumes and run around being an idiot with weaponry. Yes, I am an adult. Yes, I have social skills. Yes, I can pass for a normal human being if I really chose to do so. I’d rather pass for somebody who’s prepared to do something a bit daft in the name of fun, though.

But it gets worse. I’m one of the secret elite – I don’t just play these strange costumed games, but I actually organise and run them too.
(note: not actually very secret, nor particularly elite)

I put time and effort into creating coherent settings and plots, then adjusting them to remain fun as the players go out of their way to do things I hadn’t expected or planned for. I have to think on my feet to react to their sudden and inexplicable plans. I have to try to keep pace and atmosphere whilst trying to work out what’s going to happen next after the players came up with a plan that’s so out of left field that it may well have started on another planet.

It’s a lot of work, coming up with a game that makes sense and where the players get to go through an emotional rollercoaster because of half imagined things that are going on around them. But it’s worth it. It’s a deep, engaging and frequently exhausting hobby – both physically and emotionally.

I get a kick out of it because, when I’m running games I have to stay one step ahead of the players to keep things entertaining and exciting… but it’s at it’s most rewarding when they get themselves one step ahead of me. It’s at those moments that I know the game has taken on a life of it’s own and the player are running with it. It’s then that I know they’re really into it, and I can feed off their enthusism… putting it back into the game to build in more barriers for them to break down before bringing the story to a fulfilling conclusion.

I get a kick out of seeing everyone involved get invested in the game. The way that people’s characters grow and gain stories that can be told again and again as the years go by. I like the way that even when a particular game was years ago, the stories can carry on and grow in the telling, becoming modern epics in the world of LARP. Those stories can be told by people who’ve never met the people involved, spread by word of mouth across campfires, whispered from vampire to vampire in a gothic mansion or spoken of in hushed tones in the foxholes of the forgotten battlefields of the 41st milennium.

It’s a hobby that makes people think on their feet, and it makes people look at things from different perspectives. You can throw people into experiences they’d never meet in real life and, between everyone involved, build a story around it that they’ll remember for years. It’s also a hobby that, no matter how into it you get, you can never entirely take it too seriously. When it boils down to it, it’s fun – and it doesn’t take much at all to remind you of that, even when you just saw two of your friends cut down by an orc with an outrageous accent and green “skin” that’ll refuse to fully wash out of their hairline for days to come.

If you think this kind of thing is something people should keep quiet about and hide away from their employers, then I’ve got a suggestion for you: Quit whining, paint yourself green, dress yourself lie a mad-max reject, pick up a foam axe, a NERF gun and an atrocious accent and stop taking everything so damned seriously. Enjoy yourself whilst running around like a loon in the company of others. If that’s not your bag, how about putting on a regency dress (or doublet and hose) and spending a weekend drinking tea and gin whilst the lower classes outside your pavillion beat the crap out of each other for your pleasure. Cheer on your favourite ne’er do well if such things appeal to you.

Either way, there’s several thousand people in the UK alone having a great laugh doing this kind of thing. Why not give it a shot?

This is the second of my “Speak Out With Your Geek Out” posts. There will be more to come over the next few days.

Speak Out With Your Geek Out – User Experience Design

Amongst several other things, I’m a user experience (or UX) designer. This can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but to most people in day to day life, it means something along the same lines as “…” or “wurbwurbwurbwurb”. It sounds like some kind of pretentious made up job about “living life to the full!” and “squeezing every drop of experience from every moment of life”, but it’s not. There’s a lot of nonsense out there about the field, particularly because it’s caught a bad case of the buzzwords in recent years, but the actual field itself? Good and solid.

At the lowest level, it’s a job that focusses on the the activity of doing things, and making it so that a user’s (or participant’s) experience of that activity is appropriate instead of shit. Simple as that. I’m not even going to say the job is even to make the experience good or fun, although it is what you’re going to strive for as much as possible. For some tasks, fun may be appropriate. For others (say, a self service online form for handling the mortal remains of your recently departed but beloved pet) is generally not going to be fun whatever you do with it.

Similarly, most of the time, using enterprise software on a day to day basis is not going to be fun because most of the time it’s work. It might have elements of entertainment in it, but it’s still going to be work. My job as a UX guy is to make it not suck, and to make it as easy as possible for you to deliver what you need to deliver inside the ridiculous deadlines that you’ve been set without feeling like you’re stuck in a “choose your own adventure” book and have just turned to “page 46: Your eyes are gouged out with a grapefruit spoon. You die in pain”. If I can slip a few “heh… that’s cool” moments in there as well then we’re golden.

Enterprise Software isn’t really something that many people will say is a passion or something to geek out over, and I’m right there with them. It’s functional, and as a general rule the definition of success is “we made money instead of losing it”. But inside that, you can still geek out. You can still get passionate and enthusiastic about making things smoother for the end users, more slick so that the people you’re selling to can see the appeal without having to get all the details. For people in my line of work, we look at the bottom line, and that’s not how much money one accountant gave to another… that’s the experience of the guy at the end of the chain who actually uses the software to perform a worthwhile task.

Now, I do this as a profession, but it’s actually a passion as well. It’s something I can geek out over. Give me a tough problem and people who know their specialities (and know when they’re lost, when they’re winning and who care about what they do) and I’ll be happier than a pig in a nice clean brick building with a warm straw floor and some apples and cabbage.

I may get stressed. I may get frustrated. I may even get angry. I might make us retread the same problems and conceptual disconnects seven or eight times before throwing my hands in the air and leaving the room before I explode… but when the problem clicks (and it will) then we’ll have really done something. The easy problems get boring pretty quickly. The meaty ones? Those are where the “hell yeah!” moments come from. You can’t geek out over solving an easy problem – it’s just empty.

I geek out over those “hell yeah!” moments. I geek out over user experience design in general, but mostly it’s because of that click when something goes from a muddled mess to the right thing to build next. The moment the lights go on and you can see the solution and the path to it. The best thing? You’re never finished. There’s always more of those moments just a little further along the way. Things can always be a bit better, and it’s geeking out over stuff and getting passionate about things that’ll get you there. Sometimes it’s even getting angry or despondent about them, because those things make you identify the problems and hit them with sticks until they damned well get out of the way.

I’m a UX Design geek. It’s about making hard things easier, complex things simpler, and helping the people who have to do them be the ones who get the job done and go home happy. That’s why I geek out over it.

This is the first of my “Speak Out With Your Geek Out” posts. There will be more.

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