Love Film | September 30, 2007

I used to be a big foreign movie fan, but on walking into a DVD shop on a Saturday evening, I’d always find myself being seduced by the Hollywood blockbusters. If I’m being honest, I’d give a cursory glance at the foreign language titles, but never seemed to be in the mood for something arty and challenging, preferring something mindlessly entertaining instead. I guess at the end of a hard weeks work, my brain just wanted a distraction. That and something that went well with beer and pizza.

I joined Love Film a few months ago, and since then, my viewing patterns have changed completely. Out went the Hollywood blockbusters, replaced instead by an eclectic and intelligent list of foreign titles and art house movies. Why the change, you may ask?

Well, when I’m in a video store, it seems my critical thinking abilities and reduced to the lowest common denominator of “what do I want to watch right now”. However. when looking through a list of movies from the comfort of my own home, my better judgement kicks in and I’m far more discerning. When not faced with the choice of watching something right now, I’m free to craft a list of “must see” movies that engage my brain and make me a better (or at least more well rounded) person.

So I thought I’d share some of my favourite movies from the last few months, in case you’re also a member of love film, or just happen to be in the market for a good movie recommendation. I’m not going to bother going into much detail here, so I hope a short, pithy review will suffice.


Tae Guk Gi - The Brotherhood of War

Fantastic yet traumatising story of two brothers torn apart by the Korean War. Expect to have post traumatic shock by the end of this movie.

United 93

Possibly the most realistically distressing portrayal of a hijack I’ve ever seen, made all the more terrifying by the fact that it’s based on true events.

The Wind That Shakes The Barley

The brutality of Irish occupation and how the fight for independence ripped communities and families apart.

Downfall

A fascinating look at the last delusional hours of Hitler’s life, through the eyes of a naive young secretary inside his Berlin bunker.

The Last King Of Scotland

Fictional account of a young Scottish doctor seduced by the charisma of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, only to find himself plunged into a world of paranoia and chaos.

OldBoy

Kidnaped and held hostage for 15 years, when our protagonist is finally released his attempt at revenge leads him to a dark and sinister conclusion.

R-Point

A team of Korean soldiers during the Vietnam are dispatched to the mysterious R-point to locate some missing colleagues, only to meet their own grisly end. Think Platoon crossed with the Blaire Witch Project.

The Holiday

Formulaic romance that, despite all my best intentions, I couldn’t help falling for.

Thank You For Smoking

It’s amazing how you start rooting for the charismatic anti-hero in this tobacco lobbying drama.

The Host

Big budget monster movie out of Korea. Good, clean and unbelievably silly fun.

The Black Book

Engrossing story about a young Jewish girl who joins the resistance in war torn Holland.

What interesting movies have you seen lately?

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User Experience Metrics and the Net Promoter Score (NPS) | September 21, 2007

I had the pleasure if being interviewed on the .Net podcast yesterday, on the subject of user experience design. During the discussion, Paul Boag asked how it was possible to measure the affects of good user experience design. I mentioned that Clearleft always try to encourage our clients to outline their goals and define their success criteria. This could be anything from increasing conversion or retention rates, through to reducing customer service calls or complaints.

At this point, Peter Merholz mentioned something called the Net Promoter Score and said that this metric was currently proving popular in the US. I have to admit my ignorance of this, so went off and did some research. It turns out that the Net Promoters Score (NPS for short) is a really simple, yet quite powerful metric for measuring customer satisfaction. Simple because it’s derived from asking a single question, powerful because it appears to have a direct correlation to the growth and profitability of a company.

To calculate your Net Promoters Score, you ask your customers “how likely they would be to recommend you to a friend”, and get them to grade their answers on a scale of zero to ten. Zero would be extremely unlikely while ten would be highly likely. Those who answer nine or ten are considered promoters, and are the most likely people to evangelise your services. Those who answer between zero and six are considered detractors and are the type of people who will spread negative views about your services. People who score between seven and eight are passive. They are generally happy with your product or service, but are likely to switch if something better came along.

To work out your Net Promoters Score, you simply subtract the percentage of detractors from the percentage of promoters. A good score would be in the range of 50-80%, while an average score would be 5-10%. A poor score would be in the negatives, and I can think of quite a few companies that would fit into that category.

I can definitely see the value of using this metric to help judge the success of a site redesign. You could survey all of your customers just before the redesign, and again a few months later, once the new site has bedded down. The greater the change, the more successful the project.

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I'll Have Jam With That | September 20, 2007

Checking my email this morning I was faced with yet another invite to a new social software application. If I don’t know the people involved with the project I normally just junk these invites out of habit. However I noticed one of the examples sites came from Innocent Smoothies who I like, so decided to check them out.

The example sites were quite nice, so after taking the tour I thought I’d have a go at creating my own site. The first thing I noticed was the nice use of lightbox for feedback. While not exactly revolutionary, I much prefer using lightbox for state changes and process feedback than galleries. Primarily because I find lighbox pop-ups break the typical browser window paradigm and I regularly find myself hitting Command-W and closing the whole browser window, which annoys the hell out of me. But I digress.

webjam lightbox

The thing that really impressed me was the fact that you could start using the app and customising your site without being forced to register. With so many people getting web app registration fatigue, this is a very smart user experience strategy. Get people using the site straight away and once they have spent 10 minutes customising their page, they’ll only be too delighted to register. The nice thing about WebJam is, if you leave and come back, the site remembers that you were half way through editing a page, and gives you the option to pick up where you left off.

webjam welcome

I decided to create a test site about scuba diving, and was impressed to see that my default site came back with a photo section already pre-filled with diving images from flickr. A really nice way of getting round the zero-content cold start problem and giving new users a sense of how the site could be used.

webjam flickr module

The site starts with a number of pre-filled modules, all of which can be customised. As well as editing the content, you can set preferences on each module and even allow people to replicate them on their sites. This all feels very much in the original spirit of Ning. In fact, while setting up my pages, I felt that a lot of the interactions had taken a queue from Ning. For instance, WebJam uses a very similar persistent bar at the top of the page which rolls down to reveal your customisation options.

webjam edit screen

webjam customization screen

One of the really nice things with WebJam is the amount of layout control you have. You can add and delete columns, resize elements and even drag and drop them. There are quite a few pre-defined styles you can choose from, although they are all a bit amateur at the moment. However the best thing is you can create your own themes by uploading your own background images and even editing the CSS. Sweet. This has allowed companies like Innocent to create some pretty nice designs.

webjam-layout.jpg

When you’re happy with how everything looks you can save your site by registering. The registration form is pretty simple and uses fairly innocuous Ajax to check things like the availability of your username. The only thing I didn’t understand was why interests were a required field. Once the sign-up is complete, you’re given a nice URL you can send to all your friends.

webjam register screen

While I probably wouldn’t use the site myself, it seems like a great way for somebody to set up their own social network and integrate elements like flickr images, google maps, blogs, bulletin boards etc. Perfect for a Sunday league football team, a special interest group or a community focused business. From an interaction design standpoint, I think the site has a lot of nice touches, and I love the fact that you don’t need to register to start using the site. Hopefully we’ll see more people adopting this pattern from now on.

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Freediving at the SETT | September 17, 2007

As some of you already know, I’m a qualified PADI dive instructor, and spent a good part of my twenties travelling around Asia, teaching people to dive. During the surface intervals, me and some of my colleague would jump off the side of the boat to practice our breath hold diving. We started just by finning down, but quick progressed to variable weight diving where we’d grab hold of a weight belt to pull us down, and then haul it up afterwards. We weren’t very good, and I’ve later found that this practice was also quite dangerous, but it was fun and killed some time.

I’d never really seen the point of freediving, thinking it was just the preserve of people without access to scuba equipment. That was until we had a couple of French freedivers come out on the boat with us. While swimming round Chumpon pinnacle at 25m, these guys would drop down to the bottom, hang out for what seemed like minutes but was probably only seconds, then break for the surface. I didn’t show it in front of my clients, but I was secretly impressed.

A few years ago I learnt about a local woman who had started teaching freediving courses in Porstmouth, at a place called the SETT. It turns out that SETT stands for “submarine escape training tank” and it’s this huge, 10 story building that houses one of the deepest tanks in Europe. During the week, submariners don safety equipment, jump in an airlock, and practice escaping a downed sub from 30m. At the weekend, they rent it out to a company called Deeper Blue, who teaches freediving courses there.

I read about one of these courses in a dive mag and it sounded fun. I’d had it at the back of my mind for a while now, so when a space because available at short notice, I jumped at the chance.

Walking off the ferry from Portsmouth to Gossport, you could see the SETT towering over all the other buildings in the area. Wandering towards the naval base I couldn’t help thinking how tall the place looked, and imagining what it would be like looking over the rim and into the waters below. I didn’t have to wait for long as.

After a quick safety briefing, 8 eager students filed into the lift and up to the tenth floor to check out the SETT. Looking into the abyss below filled me with a mixture of excitement and dread. I’ve been to 30m plenty of times, but always with a tank on my back. Looking into the murky depths, you could barely see the bottom, let alone imagine yourself swimming down there and back on a single breath. I decided at that point that I’d be happy to hit 15m, and anything more was a bonus.

The two days fell into a natural routine. You’d start with a classroom session where you’d learn more about the theory and practice of freediving. Being a scuba instructor, much of this was familiar to me. However it also reminded me how much I’d forgotten. You would then move onto the first pool session of the day, followed by lunch, another classroom session and then the final pool session.

The first pool session started with a static apnea warm-up on the surface. This involved “breathing up” to make sure you were relaxed and had enough air in your system, and then simply holding your breath with your face in the water. I started at 1min 30sec and then 2min. On the second tank session I did 2min 30 sec, and by the end of the weekend I reckon I could have pushed it to 3min.

Next we practised our pulldowns, which as the name would suggest, involved us holding our breaths and pulling ourselves down to a fixed depth. The whole point of the day was to start building up our confidence, so I did a quick pull-down to 5m and then a couple more to 10m. After lunch we increased this to 15m, and by the end of the day I was managing pull downs to 20m.

After warming up on the second say with a static and a moderately deep pull-down, we graduated to the freediving fins. Known as constant weight freediving, this discipline involved swimming down to depth and back again without the assistance of a rope. The fins allowed you to get down and back much faster. However, because you were expending more energy and building up more CO2, it became increasingly difficult to hold your breath.

I did a couple of 10m practice dives, before heading for 15m. Unfortunately the increased speed of decent, combined with the previous days diving and my less than expert technique started to take a toll on my eardrums. Equalisation had become increasingly difficult, to the point where it was downright uncomfortable. I eventually made it back down to 20m, but knew that the elusive 25m mark was beyond my bruised and battered eardrums. I don’t normally have equalisation problems, so felt that by body had let me down a little. However I felt confident that I had the lung capacity to hit 25m and possibly even 30m once I’d had chance to rest my ears.

Apart from equalisation problems, my biggest issue was unlearning techniques that have become second nature from diving. Things like exhaling on ascent or body positioning in the water. So I definitely head back to the SETT to work on my technique and aim for the bottom of the tank. I may even consider a freediving holiday to Egypt at some stage.

Form more info on freediving at the SETT, check out some of these links.

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deconstructing dConstruct 2007 | September 10, 2007

So dConstruct 2007 is in the bag, and I’ve finally managed to catch up on my sleep. I know I’m biased, being the person behind the event, but I think it went fantastically well this year. Registration was extremely smooth, and there was no queuing around the block like last year. The venue was excellent, and the seats were much more comfortable than the previous venue. The WiFi was a bit up-and-down, but that’s conference WiFi for you.

All the speakers did a great job, and I felt that we got the tempo and narrative just right. Everybody I spoke to had a different favourite or least favourite talk, so it really came down to personal taste and interest. A few people said they would have liked some more practical sessions, but it’s always difficult to fit something tangible into such a short space of time. In fact, this is why we set up the pre event workshops, which were full of hands-on goodness.

The best conferences I find are always the ones that try to inspire rather than educate. Despite having been to a lot of these events, I know myself and the rest of Clearleft walked into the office this morning with a renewed interest in our field and a desire to try out some new techniques and ideas. I hope you felt the same way.

A few people mentioned that lack of time for questions, much like last year. I would have liked to have seen more time for questions as well, but with so much good material, a lot of the speakers overran. I wonder if people would prefer to lose one speaker next year, in order to free up space for questions, or if an extra speaker is a reasonable trade-off?

We were a little worried that there could be too many people this year, and a few attendees did say they would have preferred a few less people. However most of the people I spoke to said the numbers were fine, and a few people said that we should have let even more people in as we had the space. I’m going to reserve judgement on all this until we get the feedback forms in and see what the general consensus was, but I thought the size felt OK to me.

MediaTemple put on a good pre-event party, and the post conference bash by Yahoo and the BBC was a lot of fun. The food and drink did run out a little earlier than expected, but it still went pretty far considering the number of people and the price at the bar. Especially when you remember back to last year.

On the whole I though dCosntruct 2007 went very well, and we’ve already started planning dConstruct 2008. Well, we’ve booked the venue for next year already, anyway. To help make next year an even better event, I’d love to hear what you guys thought.

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