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Category: Development

Design Iteration isn’t just about the good ideas…

At work, I keep hammering on to people about how design is an iterative process.  How it’s not something that you do once at the start of a project and then never touch again.  Mostly my colleagues seem to get that and run with it, but occasionally I get farmed out to elsewhere in the company, where I find stark reminders of how much progress the team I usually work with have made.

The big eye-opener is to work with people who’ve never had the opportunity to learn about good design or how to shape a user experience.  Going right back to the basics like that reminds you of a few of your core ideas, and forces you to find new ways of expressing them.  On my most recent such excursion, I became a lot clearer about an idea I already knew and understood:

Good design is as much about the bad ideas as the good ones.

Bad ideas happen.  There’s no way around that.  They happen, and they chew up time and resources before they either finally get identified and cut away, or they get munged around until they’re workable.  In the really bad cases, they linger for a long time and chew up all that’s good about a project, leaving only an enthusiasm-free husk.

I’ve generally found that the bad ideas that hang around the longest are the ones that come out latest in the project… the ones that looked good when somebody suggested them at the 11th hour, and which grabbed all the remaining free time.  The ones that became somebody’s pet idea, which they couldn’t let die because they’d invested too much time already.  The “fixer-upper-opportunity” style time-and-money sinks that just seem worse every time you look at them, but that you can’t step away from because you don’t have the resources to start again.

It’s those ideas that are why I’m a big fan of collaborative, rapidly-iterating design processes early in a project.  To find the bad ideas, and to find them early.

The early stages of design are often referred to as “exploration”, and that’s an extremely appropriate word.  Exploration isn’t just about finding your way somewhere or finding the things you want… it’s also about finding and avoiding the pit traps, blind alleys and quicksand.  It’s not just finding the destination, but about avoiding the  hazards whilst doing so.

Good design isn’t just about making sure you build a perfect picnic bench.  It’s also about making sure you don’t build it on an ant colony, next to a sewage plant or halfway down a firing range.

So, folks, make sure you spend enough time identifying bad ideas… just so you know where they live and you can avoid straying too close to them by accident.


Barcamp London 8 – Day Two

The Journey In For Day Two

Since I’m worthless without a good night’s sleep, I’d decided to head home overnight and return reasonably refreshed for the second day of this event. This means that much like day one, I had to start the day with a journey in from just outside West London and a fight with the London Underground (which was, as is traditional, mostly closed). Unlike day one, though, I couldn’t just sleep on the train. I had a presentation to prepare for, as I’d decided on a topic to speak about and planned for my first act of the day to be picking a spot in the grid to accomodate my session.

I’m not going to write much about prepping my session (or presenting it) as I’ve already covered it elsewhere. Suffice to say that I created most of it on the train and tube, then finished it off whilst waiting for the first session of the day.

First Session – The Future of Barcamp London

Or “Tapdancing for Beginners” or “Dutch for Beginners”, as it became known to the participants who arrived early enough. This was a session presented by several of the key figures of Barcamp London, most of whom were looking like they could perhaps have done with a little more sleep at some point that week! Organising this kind of thing cannot be easy, so they deserve applause for being able to function at all – especially as they were also active participants in the event as well the the organisers.

The session itself was a plea for more people to get involved in running more barcamp or hackday style events, rather than continually growing a single, already oversubscribed Barcamp London. They also talked a bit about how their contacts and experience can help with that, and about how their resources might be brought to bear. Which I think is an awesome idea. Whilst I love the two large barcamp events, I can tell it’s going to be hugely frustrating when I lose out on the ticket lottery for one of them… if there are more events, then missing them occasionally will be less gutting. More events will mean more people will get a chance to participate, and the barrier to getting started won’t be quite as high.

Second Session – Why Online Social Media Isn’t a New Thing

Presented by Glenn Pegden / Tilt

An interesting session with a few gaps and a bias worn openly on its sleeve, this was a bit of a travelogue through early online communities and communication tools, starting with things like dial up BBSs, heading on through MUDs, MUSHes and talkers to things like Usenet and Prestel – all of which clearly are precursors to current social networks. I mentioned the open bias, though… and bias probably isn’t the right word. The speaker is clearly passionate about the Monochrome BBS, and a large chunk of the talk focussed on how that grew and evolved, and how a lot of current social network features could originally be seen there – and still can as it’s still running and in active use.

I never really got on with old-school BBSs and talkers, although I did dabble a little at times… mostly due to friends and acquaintances who used (or, indeed, use) them. Even with that in mind, I’m always interested to heat people who know a subject and care about it – and that’s what was happening here. Now that I’m more familiar with console / terminal based things than I ever was when they were state-of-the-art, I might be tempted to give Mono a look at some point. Back when this kind of thing was the only option, I was focussed on other things. Non text-based user interfaces were almost the enemy to be defeated, or at least the status quo to be surpassed (with the exception of text adventures, which were mighty). The fact that they’re still around says they’re getting something right, and it’s worth digging in to understand that and learn from it.

One thing that was touched on in the talk (which I think falls under “getting something right”) was the idea that the barrier to entry required by something in a terminal window kept the quality of discussion high. When getting in requires a certain amount of effort, people who make it are a) more likely to make worthwhile contributions and b) more likely to stick around. I’ve often said that community is often as much about exclusion as it is about inclusion, and this is a case in point. It’s a community for people who are savvy enough to want to get in and be able to get in.

Third Session – From Faraday to Fender: The Physics of the Electric Guitar

Presented by Dylan Beattie

I may not be a musician, but I am enthusiastic about music… and guitars feature heavily in a lot of music I like. Adding in the fact that I enjoyed a session from the same speaker last year, I kind of had to go to this one, really… and I’m glad I did. This was a fairly rapid run through of how and why guitars work, covering harmonics, scale lengths, string gauges, tension, the whammy bar and a fair bit more besides.

The whole lot was presented with humour, enthusiasm and an electric guitar, making for an informative and entertaining show overall.

Fourth Session – Levels of Digital Engagement with Customers

Presented by Lloyd Davis

I don’t actually remember much from this session. That’s not because it was a bad session, because it was actually quite interesting, but more because it wasn’t what I was expecting. I was expecting something about growing (or differing) adoption of online tools, but got something about engagement between brand and person. Like I say, interesting, but wasn’t what I expected. I’m also not quite sure what I can really say about it based on my hazy recollections, so I’m going to pretend I said something insightful and move on.

I probably just needed more coffee.

Fifth Session – University: Why did I bother?

This was a discussion session focussed around whether or not people felt university education had been worth it, was currently worth it, or would be worth it in future. There were no particular conclusions drawn, but I felt I had to chip in – I’ve noticed a trend amongst tech geeks to do two things… first, they dismiss any subject other than computer sciences and second, they then say that their computer sciences degree wasn’t worth the time and effort. It shouldn’t be too hard to spot the issue there. Thankfully, in this discussion, that didn’t seem to be the case.

For reference, whilst many folks I know seem to have decided that I’m a computer scientist or somesuch… I did my degree in Industrial Design. It was very, very worthwhile for three main reasons. First, it taught me that I didn’t want to be an industrial designer. Second, it taught me how to think design (some other things helped – more later), which is essential for what I do now. Third, it passed the time until my industry of choice became a viable option. I couldn’t have planned to work on the web before starting my degree – the web was there, but design wasn’t really a word that could be applied to it at that point. I was halfway through my degree when it became a career option.

I’m now going to digress a bit and flesh out that “more later” from above. Thinking design was also helped by two other things in particular: Fencing and Gaming.

Yes, my current physique hides the fact that once upon a time I was a passable fencer – I was actually school champion for two years running, one of which I think I even deserved. One of the things my instructor taught heavily was ODA – Observe, Deduce, Apply. See what people do, deduce how to use that, then apply your deduction. Whilst I don’t fence anymore (alas), I still do a lot of o
bserving and deducing… and when I can, I apply.

As for gaming, well, again, a lot of the kinds of game I do rely on being able to help the players suspend disbelief, move past constraints and percieve what you want them to. Learning to mess with people’s heads in a gaming environment has it’s uses for other fields as well.

But enough of that digression…

Sixth Session: A Rough Intro to User Experience Design

Presented by… wait, that’s me!

Yes, this was my slot. I wanted to present a slightly different view of User Experience design, whilst also explaining what it’s about. So I did. With sketches. I’ve already blogged about the session and how it went.

Lunch and Conversation

I ended up sitting having lunch with a few good folks, some of whom I can identify, some I can’t. I know I talked to @jack_franklin and @kaythaney – if you’re one of the other folks, please prod me on twitter and say hi!. It started as overflow questions from my talk… and rambled around a fair bit, including me pimping Leah Buley’s “UX team of one” talk and the UXLondon conference. I’m pretty sure I extolled the virtues of one other thing as well, but I can’t recall exactly what… I also kind of forgot to actually eat much, which was probably foolish.

The Blur & Journey Home

From here on out, it’s a bit of a blur. I know I went to an interesting talk by @DigitalMaverick on crowdsourcing and the closing session… and that I had a reason for not attending a session between the two, but I don’t recall much about any of those. So I’ll apologise for the disservice to those who ran the sessions I was at, and wind this post up with a mention that my first good, uneventful journey of the weekend was the last one, which got me home intact and without incident. Which was a good thing, since my brain had clearly shut down by that point.

Barcamp London 8 – Day One

What is BarCampLondon?

BarCampLondon is a participatory unconference. It’s generally techie and geek focussed, but the talks can be on any subject at all. The “Unconference” part basically means that there’s no pre-established running order – just slots in which talks and sessions can happen. What happens in them depends on what people decide to talk about and when they decide it. This is the second time I’ve attended a BarCampLondon, and once again I’m going to try to write up what I can remember of it… I took an assortment of notes over the weekend, so I should have at least a few recollections to work with!


The TFL website did a bang up job of making sure I was good and prompt. Knowing that half the tube was going to be broken this weekend, I looked to see how long it thought it’d take me to get here… and to see what route it recommended. Of course, I immediately spotted that it was telling me to use the Waterloo and City line before it opened, so I thought “I’ll give myself an extra 20 mins to handle that”. This meant I had to leave the house a bit before 7am. So naturally, I got there way too early. I arrived at the venue at 8:30am – fully an hour before things were due to kick off. They did offer to let me wait indoors, but I decided to go for a walk instead. I don’t get enough exercise as it is, and the weather wasn’t too horrific.

Unfortunately, there’s not much of interest in the gap between Angel and Old Street, so I basically wandered aimlessly for around 30 mins, then returned to the venue to wait inside. I ended up sitting with Jamie Knight (and Lion) and Alison Wheeler, who’d arrived between my first and second arrivals, whilst we waited for the world to be ready for us.

Welcome Session

Next up was the traditional welcome session, where we were told what’s what and informed who was paying for everything. Quite a good round of sponsors – they’re on the BarCampLondon 8 website. They also pointed us at the Lanyrd page for the event, which was handy. The session ended with the advice to get to the grid quickly and start filling it with the first batch of talks…

…which was slightly scuppered by the grid being on a small, crowded landing on the ground floor. The crew weren’t happy about letting too many people near it at once, so we couldn’t all go and add things and decide where we were going. The result was that I got to the grid when there were only two sessions on it. I probably missed a couple of early talks simply because they weren’t up on the grid yet, and I had to move away to let other people in to put them on there. Whilst I generally can’t fault the organisation, I will say that this probably wasn’t the wisest place for the grid – I think it’s more important that people can actually get at it than for it to be central!

First Session – Location Aware?

This was a fairly discussion heavy session, hosted by Alison Wheeler. Discussion sessions are frequently interesting, but are often difficult to write anything about afterwards. Two things that I distinctly recall – location aware services present two different issues, either of which can be problematic for some people:

  1. They tell people where I am, so they can find me when I might not want them to.
  2. They tell people where I’m not, so they can get at my stuff when I’m not there

A further point that was raised as something that makes the previous isses worse – many location aware services don’t give you much (or any) control over who can see your location data. Twitter was held up as an offender on this front as if there’s location data attached to a tweet, there’s no way to let somebody see the tweet without the data, and no way to remove the data without deleting the whole tweet.

In relation to the “letting people know where my location aware device is they can mug me and steal it” issue, one of the audience passed on a comment from an iPhone thief in San Francisco… “If I wanted to steal and iphone in San Francisco, the best way to do it was ask somebody the time. When they took out their iPhone, I’d take it”.

Second Session – Secret Life of Bees

Presented by Kerry Buckley

Earlier on, I described barcamps and being “vaguely techie”. Perhaps “geeky” is a better description, and this session fits that heading very well. It was an introduction to Beekeeping, which was really quite well attended, so it shows that a lot of geeks find it interesting. How it wortks has always been a bit of a mystery to me, so I was quite interested.

Amongst other things, the speaker put paid to the idea that the queen is in some way “in charge” of the hive – it’s blatantly the workers who run the show. They just need an egglaying machine to keep the hive running, so they either find a queen or make one by feeding a larva Royal Jelly. They also feed larvae differently to make drones… who are essentially useless except for being the other thing required to make the queen produce eggs, which they only do once. when eggs aren’t needed, the workers kick the drones out to starve to death, rather than wasting resources to feed them!

To sum up: I learned a few things I didn’t already know, and my vague interest in it as a topic remains.

Third Session – Lifestylelinking Open Source Project

Presented by James Littlejohn

At first, this was one of those “this all sounds very interesting, but I have no clue what you’re on about” sessions… but as it went on I managed to pull the various threads together to get a picture of what it was about. If I’ve got it right, this session was about an open source project called LifestyleLinking, which is a web application supporting automated content discovery based on information gleaned about your personal interests. Essentially, you point it at your blog and some other resources, and it works out the kinds of things you write about, then gathers resources based on that information and reveals them to me in an organised manner.

It all sounded a fair bit more involved than that, and it sounded like it would refine it in a lot more detail than my description suggests – but I’m still not 100% certain of any of that! I suspect I needed to be a bit more awake (or at least caffeinated) to get more from this session. As it is – I’m intrigued and would like to know more…

Fourth Session – High Performance CSS

Presented by Anthony Kennedy

This was an interesting session on optimising your CSS for file size and reduced HTTP requests. I’d have quite liked more details of the subsequent topics that the speaker had (quite reasonably) steered clear of for time, but the stuff that was left in was all good – and presented in a clear and interesting manner.

Fifth Session – Running Meetups using Social Networks

Presented by Nathan O’Hanlon

I was interested in this one as I’ve toyed with putting together a couple of meetups in the past – one gaming related, one tech related. I may still do so in both cases.

Anyway – Nathan has organised quite a few meetups, it seems, starting with pub meets in New Zealand, and lately the London Web Meetup. He gave a whole bunch of advice on how to go about setting them up – starting with being clear about your requirements for the meetup. His requirements included things like being able to network and keep sane as well as things like having an appropriate sized venue with a flat rate rather than a minimum drinks spend.

He also suggested hooking in to a pre-existing community, which is good advice as you can’t force a community int
o existance. That said, you can encourage and develop them – and social networks can provide a means to do that, which is part of why I was interested in this session.

After that, he went on to talk about a few older methods of getting things rolling – such as having a clear agenda, a good URL and a name that’s better than “The [place] web design meetup”. He talked about getting a core team together and discussing what works and what doesn’t, and adapting accordingly. He also mentioned once again that the venue is key – and this is where I find problems with arranging meetups or geek nights around here – I can’t find a venue that I think will work for anything other than a bunch of people in a pub.

Then came the newer methods, which were a bit more twitter focussed – namely asking your speakers (if you have them) to retweet, and when you tweet about the meetup, include speakers’ twitter names – the chances are that they’ll retweet. That way, people who follow your speakers will know about your meetup.

Of course – that’s all for before the meetup itself. What about during the meetup and after it? He suggested starting off a hashtag for the event and announce it at the event, so that coverage of the event can be found afterwards. Likewise, he suggested retweeting some of that coverage from the meetup’s own account – that way you’re publicising the event, the community and the hashtag as well as the original poster.

Sixth Session – Books for Freaks

Presented by Paula Schramm

This was another discussion session, focussed on an assortment of book recommendations. The speaker set the ball rolling by recommending Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin and Medea by Christa Wolf.

Palfrey suggested The Star Fraction by Ken Macleod and The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi.

Ryan Alexander suggested Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Blue Champagne by John Varley, Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud (Which I heartily second – I’ve also heard him speak at a UX conference, which was awesome), Born Standing Up by Steve Martin, Wikihistory by Daniel Warzel (aka: “Everybody Kills Hitler Their First TIme Out”), Emergence by Stephen Johnson and The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power by Travis Culley

Jessica Meats suggested the young adult SF Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins and took the opportunity to pimp her own first novel, Child of the Hive.

Ian Johnson suggested the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde and An Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry.

Melinda suggested Feed by Mira Grant (which I also second heartily – Zombie political thriller, what’s not to love?), Old Mans War and Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi (I heartily second the first of those – I’ve not read the second yet).

There were further suggestions, but I didn’t manage to note them down.

I tried to get a couple of recommendations out myself, but generally time was running short and so the same couple of people were rapid-firing the last of theirs and I didn’t get a chance… but if I had, I’d have put up Anathem by Neal Stephenson (which is best summed up by this webcomic) and Accelerando by Charles Stross… the latter of which has a couple of problems but is awesome nonetheless – it’s like future shock in book form.

Seventh Session – How Photographs Tell Stories

Presented by Paul Lowe

I didn’t get any notes on this one, but it was an interesting walk through documentary photography…

Eighth Session – Why I’m Not Using HTML5

Presented by Jamie Knight + Lion, with an interlude from Glyn Wintle

This was an interesting session which I think was derailed a bit by the security aspect added by Glyn Wintle. I was quite interested in the accessibility concerns that Jamie was raising, but they didn’t really get much of a chance to come through…

Ninth Session – What’s Wrong With “It Just Works”

Presented by David E (eastmad) & Abizer

This session seemed a bit like a good idea at first, but seemed to hinge around the idea that everybody should want the same thing and one approach should be sufficient to please everybody… I left partway through.

Tenth Session – Improvised session on how DIY is ruining the world.

Presented by Paula Schramm

This rapidly turned into an economics discussion, and so went over my head entirely. The concept of money and the psuedoscience that’s grown around it bugs me.

End of Day One (for me, anyway)

At this point, I’d pretty much had enough of being sociable. I’d had a rough week, with some pretty significant personal upheavals and my mood was starting to crash. I thought it best to leave for the day before I started getting cranky at people… so I set out for a slightly smoother train journey home and a reasonable night’s sleep.

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