Big design up front | March 24, 2011

Like most designers and developers we’ve come to the conclusion that big design up front doesn’t work. Six month requirement gathering exercises which result in thousand page specifications don’t work. In the time it has taken to produce these requirements the business landscape has almost certainly changed. So new requirements appear and designers and developers are forced to battle scope creep and keep these documents alive while at the same time trying to build something that is ever shifting and changing.

So instead we’ve seen a move to agile development and an almost zealot backlash against detailed planning of any kind. However just because big design up front doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean we should ditch design planning altogether. As a race we tend to flip flop between polar opposites rather than exploring the middle ground. So the problem doesnt lie with requirements gathering, design or planningóit’s about the amount you do.

Too much planning and you get bogged down in nuances. Sometimes it’s just easier and quicker to design something than it is to discuss it. Too much documentation and you end up spending more time managing the documentation than you do managing the design. The converse is also true. Too little documentation and it’s easy for large teams to lose their path. It’s also easy for the fidelity of the solution to suffer. Just as with too much planning, too little planning leads to inefficiency as work that was done several sprints ago needs to be redone based on decisions made later down the line.

So I don’t think the argument should be agile vs waterfall. Instead it’s about knowing the skills, abilities and interests of your team and initiating a level of planning which is appropriate for the project at hand. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to developing good products, so I really wish we’d stop chasing the Holy Grail and having holy wars in the process.

Instead let’s go back to the core commandments of agile and prefer conversations to documentations, while understanding that in some instances documentation is necesary. Similarly, zero design won’t work, while all design may be a fiction. Instead you need to find the right level of fidelity and tweak the smaller issues as you go along.

It’s all about balance people, so let’s start finding ours.

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Helicopter Taxi iPhone App | March 22, 2011

Lovely AR iPhone app from our friends at Toca Boca.

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Stop trying to design experiences and start designing products | March 21, 2011

The architect Frank Lloyd Wright famously told a customer to move their table when they complained that water was leaking from the ceiling when they ate dinner. This is almost certainly apocryphal but hints at the ego of the experience designer. Well tell our users and customers what experience they are going to have (sometimes based on research) but they have to live with the results.

In an agency centric world which I come from, designers are used like Cruise missiles. The target is acquired and we fire and forget. Rarely if ever do we get the opportunity to cycle back to see if the target turned out to be a hospital rather than a barracks. We also don’t get the opportunity to pick through the rubble. Agency design is therefor a blunt weapon and a weapon of force.

Over the years I’m becoming more and more convinced that we’re doing things wrong. That our values around interaction and interface design are skewed. That we’re constantly trying to create the platonic ideal of a chair rather than trying to design a comfortable seating experience.

Why is it that ugly websites can prosper while beautifully designed experiences lack use? Are we focussing on the wrong part of the value chain? Maybe it’s an issue of content strategy? As Karen McGrain says, maybe we’re spending our time designing the paths between a garbage tip, rather than sorting out the garbage itself. Maybe we’re the architects designing a new museum with no thought to the artefacts which will lie within?

I hear many designer bemoan the use of statistics, citing that it somehow takes their creativity away. This can be true if taken to an extreme. After all none of us want to work in an environment where every design decision gets second guessed and tested. However there needs to be balance.

Designing a perfect digital product involves a certain level of faith and artistry. However it’s not an artistic pursuit. Instead I see design more like the unravelling of a mystery. You need to have some hunches and show some big leaps of faith based on prior experience. However it’s not about the individuals skill. Good designers can, and often do, make bad products. Conversely, technically bad designers have been behind some of the most successful web sites out there.

One thing I think we need to do as an industry is to stop focussing on the big, one off products and focus on long lasting customer engagements. However we can’t do that without the help of our clients. Instead of fire and forget, we need to launch our design offensive and then constantly course correct along the way. This involves checking the success of our sites through sales and analytics, coming up with hypothesise about what isn’t working and what can be improved, and then tweaking as we go. Sometimes these changes can be intellectual, while at other times they have to be behavioural. I don’t know which headline or button copy is going to be most effective. I can guess, but my first guess probably isn’t going to be right. So don’t design around your own ego and take nothing on face value. Design, measure, iterate and test should be our new mantra.

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love SXSW | March 17, 2011

I’ve been coming to SXSW for 7 years and I’ve seen it change from a small and intimate event to the tech sector’s equivalent of Glastonbury. Back then bloggers were king and CSS2.1 was the hot technology of the day. Today the conference has gone from 2,500 people to an astonishing 25,000. Blogging is considered old hat, and the new tech superstars are the start-up founders, the professional publishers and the best selling authors. Think Gowalla, Mashable and Shirky rather than Zeldman, Bowman and Veen.

The marketing world has finally realised the importance of the web and SXSW was awash with “social media experts” wanting to learn what the designers and developers have known for some time. 2011 was also the year that corporate America arrived at SXSW in the form of the Pepsi lot, the CNN cafe and the Playstation Lounge. As such, it would be easy to say that SXSW has jumped the shark.

In reality in think SXSW jumped the shark in 2008/09 and is now an entirely different conference. It’s just taken me a couple of years to reconcile the difference and develop a new set of coping strategies.

This year I finally gave up on the conference itself, going to a handful of sessions. I met many more who hadn’t seen a single session and several who didn’t even bother buying a ticket. Instead people spent time seeing friends and maintaining the weak ties in their social graph. I say that somewhat wryly, but SXSW really has become about networking in the most real and genuine sense of the word.

Gone are the days when people would congregate in the hallways after sessions and head out in search of food on mass. Instead I ended up organising lunches and dinners in advance to make sure that I got to spend quality time with the people I most cared about. I also sacked off most of the big parties, preferring to head to a local pub that my generation of SXSW attendees had adopted as a temporary home.

It would seem that SXSW is no longer a single conference, but a collection of overlapping events. You have the start-up kids and the VCs sniffing round them in search of the next big thing, the marketers and social media experts pimping out their wares to all who will listen, and the big agencies trying (and generally failing) to position themselves alongside the cool kids.

Amazingly, the organisers have somehow succeeded in keeping all these distinct groups separate. So I was able to bump into friends in the hallways while avoiding the slew of booth babes in comically tight fitting tops trying to pimp products they new little about. This latest addition to SXSW was actually pretty unpleasant and it’s the one thing I’d call the organisers out on.†

The sessions were of typically average quality. However this is to be expected when you mix popularity driven selection with the belief that speaking at SXSW will benefit your career. As such it would seem that the bulk of the talks we designed to get selected rather than deliver value to the audience. That being said, there was a lot less variance in quality this year. †More solo presentations and fewer panels meant that I didn’t see anything at truly sucked (except perhaps the battle decks session). The good things is that I didn’t really mind. SXSW is no longer about the panels for me. They are literally the framework around which interesting conversations happen.

On the whole I had an absolutely lovely time at SXSW this year. I had a wonderful lunch with a group of agency founders I’ve long respected, the Great British Booze-up was back in full force and turned out to be one of the most convivial events of the season, and Media Temple pulled out all the stops at their closing party by booking the Foo Fighters to perform to an intimate crowd. I got to spend quality time with a bunch of nice people like Dave Gray, Kevin Hoffman, Ms Jen, Ben Ward, Mike Stenhouse, Josh Porter and Stephen P Anderson, along with more fleeting exchanges with a few dozen more.

It wasn’t the best SXSW since 2005’ as my friend Derek Fatherstone suggested. However it ranks pretty highly and I definitely had the nicest time for a good few years. So thanks Hugh, Shawn and the gang. Hope to see you next year.

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10 tips for public speaking | March 10, 2011

If you’re going to be speaking at a conference soonófor instance SXSWóhere are my top 10 tips.

  1. Start with a story (but not your life story).
  2. Aim high and leave them wanting more.
  3. Entertain, inspire and educate (in that order).
  4. One concept per slide.
  5. Pictures not bullets.
  6. Talk to your audience not at them.
  7. Use the stage but don’t pace.
  8. It’s all about pacing (different kind cheeky) and delivery, so practice.
  9. Dress slightly smarter than your audience (the Veen rule).

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Stop the press! Design costs money? | March 7, 2011

The most recent guardian technology podcast opened with these headlinesÖ

“On this weekís podcast, weíre looking closely at why a 32×32 pixel digital icon designed for the UK Governmentís Information Commissionerís Office cost £585 of public funds!”

To discuss this topic of national importance, Margaret Manning, the Director of the design agency responsible was bought in and grilled as to why the creation of an icon could have cost so much.

Margaret stated that the actual design and production work would have taken a couple of hours, and the bulk of the cost was actually administrative. At this point Margaret was interrupted by the interviewer, Charles Arthur, who exclaimed with incredulity, how heíd heard that icons could be done in a matter of minutes.

Hearing this I was genuinely gobsmacked. Iíve long been a fan of both the Guardian newspaper and the tech podcast. However It was as if they had somehow been hijacked by the Daily Mail on a slow news week. They just seemed to have no clue what they were talking about.

For a start I couldnít believe that this story was considered newsworthy, let along lead the headlines. With some Government IT projects costing tensóif not hundredsóof millions of pounds, quibbling over a few hundred pounds seemed trivial by comparison. It reminded me of a story from a few years back where Ashley Highfield from the BBC was criticised for buying two iPods for testing purposes. Oh, the horror of it all!

I also took exception to the fact that just because the interviewer had heard from one web designer that they could create an icon in a couple of minutes, that meant all icons took a couple of minutes. I know somebody who can design a whole website for £100 but that doesnít mean that all websites costing more than £100 are therefore a rip-off.

Good icon design is a detailed and methodical process. As such itís perfectly reasonable for an icon to take several hours to create. Add to that the feedback and revision loop and £585 inc Vat doesnít seem unreasonable for a company charging £600 plus Vat per day.

Even if you were to quibble over their day rate or the exact number of hours it should have taken, itís not like weíre talking about a clear and premeditated attempt to rip off the UK tax payer. Some times design and production costs money. Deal with it.

The thing that really annoyed me about this story was that it was another example of the appalling way the news media treats the digital sector. On one hand they fawn over big money startups while in the same breath labelling all SXSW attendees as money grabbers. They congratulate costly white elephants like the governmentís Tech City initiative while at the same time force a company director to justify why a small piece of design work cost £585 instead of £350. I honestly donít think that this is a mature and healthy way for the news media to cover what is an increasingly important part of both our economy and our personal lives.

Implying that web designers are systematically over charing their clients is just wrong. Sure there are bad agencies out there with bad practices, but the majority of people Iíve met in this industry are nothing but honourable.

I also think itís wrong to imply that all government design jobs need to be done as cheaply and quickly as possible or you risk being interrogated by the national press. I personally believe that good design takes time and that taxpayers deserve to be given the same quality of design, and treated with the same level of respect, as any other user.

Note: This article is about the way the Guardian Technology podcast positioned this story and not about the story itself. The actual story was about the wastefulness of government bureaucracy, which I completely agree with. Interestingly this story was sparked by a freedom of information request from a web designer who felt that the creation of an icon should take no longer than 5 minutes. Something with I firmly refute. There’s an interesting discussion over at Hacker News about whether the cost in this particular case was fair or not. The fact that there are 84 comments, with a fairly even split of opinion seems to indicate that it’s not as clear cut as the Guardian makes out. Itís also worth noting that this freedom of information request probably cost the UK taxpayer more than the contested icon itself.

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Is there a right way to use Twitter? | March 5, 2011

There are a handful of people who follow me on Twitter who continually moan about the way I use the service. Some complain when I tweet about what Iíve eaten, who Iíve met or what Iíve done that day. Others complain when I use Gowalla or Foursquare to announce my location or post a stream of consciousness on a topic that is currently bugging me.

An obvious reaction is to remind those people that nobody is forcing them to follow me and they can easily unfollow if they donít like what Iím saying. In fact, I have done just that on several occasions.

However Twitter is an unusual hybrid of public discussion and private conversation. In fact itís not unlike being at a cocktail party with friends.

At a good cocktail party there is sufficient background buzz for people can feel they are having a semi-private conversation. However the volume is low enough that people can shift easily from one conversation to another. If one person or group is being too loud or courting too much publicity, it can be seen as being rude.

The difference between Twitter and a cocktail party is that a typical party will have a single host. With Twitter everybody is simultaneously both guest and host. As such many people can’t feeling that they have some right to dictate terms or influence the behaviour of others.

As a content creator I sometimes view Twitter as a microblogging tool. On other occasions itís a discussion board, a link sharing tool or location broadcast mechanism. Itís Wordpress, delicious, Foursquare and a raft of other services all rolled into one. In fact I think the very strength of Twitter is its flexibility. So it is defined by its users and its usage, not by its functionality or a strict set of rules and behaviours.

Twitter is also beautifully emergent. So the way I used Twitter 3 years ago is different to the way I use it now. Was my usage right 3 years ago and wrong now? Obviously this is a stupid and reductionist question and one that doesnít deserve an answer.

I think things get more complicated when you view Twitter from the perspective of a follower. By choosing to follow a person you are giving them some kind of patronage. In a time of dwindling attention, this is very flattering and something that shouldít be abused or squandered. I think this is the crux of peoples frustrations with my Twitter usage style.

There are some things I talk about which are of interest to certain people. There are other things which are not. There is an understanding that users will continue to patronise you if the quality of signal is in balance with the level of noise. A high frequency signal and youíre considered a good citizen. Too much noise and people start to get annoyed. Some will leave immediately and thatís fine. However others will become frustrated, thinkingÖ ďI really like some of what this person has to say but the rest is uninteresting or irrelevant to me.Ē

The difficulty is, with several thousand followers itís very difficult to provide value to everybody. Some people follow me because they have read my book, heard me talk or are familiar with my work. Others follow me because weíve met in person and are interested in my personal life.

When Iím conscious of the people following me I tend to split my tweets evenly between people I know and people I donít know. This may feel like a raw deal for each group, but thatís the nature of the beast.

The problem is that most of the time Iím not tweeting for a particular audience. Instead, much like my blogging, Iím tweeting for myself. So a lot of the time I donít mind if 15 or 15,000 people see what Iím saying. Itís personal, itís selfish and Iím fine with that.

As I described earlier, there is an interesting sense of entitlement that comes through following somebody on Twitter. With that comes a level of annoyance if that person is wasting your time with personal, irrelevant nonsense. Howeverówith my early caveats about being a good citizen asideó that really is more your problem than mine.

So dear Twitter followers, I will try to respect your patronage and provide you with useful information and tidbits when I can. However my Twitter account is largely personal and I will use it in the way I see fit. Not to any one person’s timetable, agenda or individual sense of etiquette. I’ll aim to protect the commons without pandering to the gallery.

Similarly I will respect the way that you choose to communicate on Twitter and wonít criticise you publicly or privatly. Iíll reserve to right to unfollow you on occasion. However please donít take that as a personal judgement. I will still love you and will almost certainly refollow you at some later date. What I wonít do is judge you on your use of the medium. After all itís the Internet and its greatest strength is as a mechanism for self expression.

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Lies, dammed lies and web analytics | March 3, 2011

At Clearleft we’re an incredibly business focussed agency. So we work closely with our stakeholders to understand their business needs, and then turn these into Key Performance Indicators to track. In the vast majority of cases, our clients KPIs increase after working with us. However on the rare occasion that things go in the other direction, we take it as a matter of professional pride to rectify the matter.

Thankfully we’ve only seen this happen on 4 occasions in our 6 year history. The first time this happened it was a temporary blip and righted it’s self naturally after a month or so. This can occasionally happen when new designs go live and users need to adjust to a new way of working.

The next two times this happened were more of a concern. Bounce rates had shot up, conversions had plummeted and our project sponsors were getting grief from the board. Both clients understandably panicked. One rolled their site back to the previous version while the other took versions of previous designs we’d supplied them, and rolled their own hybrid version.

The funny thing with both these stories was that it turned out there was nothing wrong with either site. Instead the clients analytics packages had been set up incorrectly and they were no longer tracking the whole picture. With one project they had accidentally started tracking spam “attacks” to the site, causing the bounce rate to seemingly go through the roof. In the other instance the client was only seeing some of the conversions due to the fact that several of the processes we now Ajax driven and weren’t registering as completed goals. Adding in some virtual page views and events in Google Analytics seemed to sort the problem.

Analytics are incredibly important, but easy to misread. In fact I always liken managing your website based on analytics to driving somewhere only with the aid of your GPS and not look out of the window. It’ll only give you partial view of your journey and doesn’t account for glitches in the system (I once knew somebody in the middle east with an in built and non-updatable GPS. Land reclamation meant that their drive home from work showed them driving through the sea!)

The final project is still ongoing, and we’re looking into all the various options to see how we can help. However from previous experience I wouldn’t be surprised if this was also analytics related.

So if you see a sudden and dramatic drop in your KPIs after launch it’s tempting to panic and roll back or make dramatic changes in the heat of the moment. Before doing this I urge you to take stock of your analytics setup and if necessary call in an expert. After all there are lies, dammed lies and web analytics.

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