How Tower Bridge Changed My Relationship With Twitter | June 13, 2011

Like many geeks in the UK, the Tower Bridge Twitter account was one of the first Twitter Mashups I’d seen. It was also the point where I realised that Twitter was more than just a simple communication tool; it was a powerful and scriptable platform.

Talking publicly available data, local developer Tom Armitage created a Twitter Bot which automatically Tweeted whenever the bridge opened and a ship passed through. This was a rare occurrence in the city and something most people have never seen, so the account gave Londoners a new way of experiencing an iconic part of the city. As such over 4,000 people, from local developers to London Cabbies followed the account which had remained active for several years.

One of the things I loved about the account was that it spoke in the first person. By allowing an inanimate object to communicate with the real world, Tom had created an early example of a spime; an object which can be tracked through space and time. This little experiment inspired numerous other developers to experiment with the platform and became part of the Twitter story in the UK. As such I was saddened to find out that Twitter unilaterally decided to shut the account down. A sentiment shared by much of the London developer community.

It would seem that a company called Tower Bridge Exhibitions decided that they wanted the account for themselves so asked Twitter to hand it over. Rather than trying to contact Tom to discuss the claim, it appears that Twitter simply sent him a notification that the account was being pulled. This worries me for a number of reasons.

First and foremost it brings into stark relief the fact that we don’t own our online identities or the content we produce. We have few if any rights, and the companies behind these services can remove our accounts at will. I guess I’ve always felt a certain ownership over the services I use. After all, we’re all part of the reason for their success. So the fact that they can delete accounts at will is rather unsettling. It basically sends the message that you’d better play nicely or we’ll expunge you from history.

Secondly, it seems that social networks have an automatic presumption of guilt. So rather than attempting to contact users to discuss claims, the default response to an alleged copyright infringement is to send out a notification that action is being taken and put the onus on the user to respond quickly and defend themselves. This results in a disturbingly Kafkeresque approach to dispute resolution. A much better way would be to send multiple emails, set a deadline for response, put accounts on hold and then only hand over accounts once every attempt at resolution has been followed.

I’m a huge fan of Twitter and have always had very positive feelings about the company, their staff and the service they provide. However this latest incident has eroded some of my faith in their brand and they have taken one step closer to Facebook and Google in my eyes.

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How to break into User Experience Design | June 10, 2011

One of the most common things I’m asked is how people can break into the field of user experience design.

I’d love to be able to give a simple answer like studying a particular course at University or starting as a UX apprentice and working your way up a series of clearly defined roles, but sadly that’s not the case.

There are Masters degrees out there, but the good ones are few and far between. With current courses failing to meet demand, there’s no way the education system will be able to cope in the next two to three years once User Experience practice has becomes the norm.

Even if you’re lucky enough to attend a good course, unless you had some level of prior experience, you’ll find it hard landing that first job. You see, User Experience is no different from the rest of our industry. There are few large companies willing to train people up so most employers need people with at least a couple of years experience in their chosen field, and preferably more.

For designers and developers it’s easy to gain experience though personal projects. This is why most of my peers came to prominence through their blogs, portfolio sites and side projects. They were blank canvases on which they could try out new skills and lean the tools of their trade. These days people are doing the same thing, but with start-ups and iPhone apps instead.

It’s easy for designers and developers to take on solo projects, but it’s much more difficult for budding user experience designers. After all I can’t imagine many UX Designers sitting around in the evening running usability tests, doing card sorts or designing complex sign-up processes just for the fun of it. By it’s nature, user experience design is a specialisation and one that forms part of a bigger process and a larger team.

The most successful user experience designers tend to come from a graphic design or front-end development background. As they’re already working on the parts of the project that come in contact with the user, it;’s natural for some of them to be more in tune with UX problems. If they happen to work for a company without a dedicated UX person, it’ll often be left to them to solve.

That’s exactly the situation I found myself in. I worked for a company where I was the main designer and front-end developer. With nobody else to worry about the user I found myself running usability testing sessions, setting up card sorts, working out site maps and designing wireframes. The more UX work I did the less visual design and front end development I did, until one day I found myself doing User Experience design full time.

So if you are working for a small agency on in-house team and don’t have a UX person on staff, one way to break into the industry is to take these responsibilities on yourself push your company forward. As your company grows in its maturity, you will too.

Bizarrely it’s a lot more difficult to become a user experience designer in a company that already gets UX and has dedicated staff. That’s simply because the opportunities to dabble are much less. In those situations it’s worth letting your employers and colleagues know that you’re interested in moving into that field and offer to help out as much as possible. That could be helping to moderate usability testing sessions or helping your UX team design deliverables or prototype ideas.

If the day job doesn’t provide the opportunity to flex your UX muscles then you’re going to need to build your experience and portfolio through other means. One idea is to have a pet project. This is a little more difficult of you don’t have any back end skills, so it may be sensible to find a friendly developer to partner up with. Another idea could be to offer your services to one of the many ugly, badly conceived but nevertheless worthy open source projects out there. Lastly, I’d recommend going along to a hack day, Design Jam or Dev Fort style event. It will take time to get the requisite experience, but it may be the only way.

One of the most difficult problems is taking the leap and redefining yourself as a user experience person. Often your existing company won’t see you in that light, especially if they’ve always known you as a graphic designer or front-end developer. However until you’ve a couple of years of dedicated experience, you’ll find it very difficult picking up full time work.

If you;’re young enough the best way to redefine yourself is to walk into the wilderness and simply call yourself a freelance user experience designer. You’ll find it difficult picking up work at first, but as you get better, more will come. Go to as many UX conferences and community events as you can. The sooner other people in the community start thinking of you as a user experience designer, the sooner you can start feeling like one yourself. There is a certain amount of re-invention going on here, but that’s going to be the only way for some people.

Of course you could think about doing a masters degree in some HCI related subject. Sadly most of the courses are 10 years out of date, so it’s less about what you’ll learn and more about the opportunities that will arise from the course. So take every opportunity to do practical work and fill out your portfolio. A year long Masters with a couple of obscure essays and a final project on machine learning won’t help you as much as a dissertation on sign-up techniques and 4 or 5 relevant side projects. It still won’t guarantee you a job, but it will probably put you a couple of years a head of where you would have been otherwise.

Sadly, until universities wake up to the need for modern courses in interaction design, until large companies and agencies set up dedicated training programs and until user experience becomes the de facto standard for web design, it’s going to be tough making the jump. But with demand for good people growing, and showing no sign of letting up, if you are interested in making the leap I’d encourage you to do so.

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Where are the poster children for responsive design? | June 10, 2011

In my previous post I stated that while I didn’t think responsive design was the right approach for every mobile experience, it was appropriate for 90% of cases and should become the natural default option. Sadly the current default for most organisations is to build a suite of device specific mobile apps. While giving designers control over layout and companies the ability to make a bit of extra money through app store sales, this seems like an expensive, labour insensitive and somewhat wasteful approach. Especially when you consider the relatively small number of app consumers, compared to the number of people who access the web through mobile devices. For most online companies a mobile optimised website is going to be the smartest option in terms of reach and ROI.

I think one of the big problems with responsive design is that it’s a relatively new and unproven concept. Sure, a few companies and individuals have been building responsive versions of their personal projects like the sites for Ampersand and UX London. However few large companies have yet to cotton on, either because they’re enamoured by the idea of making it big in the app store, or simply aren’t aware of the approach.

We were talking about this in the studio the other day and likened the problem to the early days of CSS. Sure there were blogs by people like Jeremy and Myself, but there weren’t any big corporate sites using this technology. Until there was a canonical standards based site out there for us all to point too, it was going to be very difficult to convince clients of this new approach. Then along came the beautiful 85th PGA Championship Golf website.

 PGA Championship Golf website

Now we had a great looking commercial site we could use to prove to clients that web standards weren’t simply a techie fab, but were actually a viable way of building corporate websites. What we needed was the responsive equivalent. A large, internationally renowned company willing to forgo the conventional wisdom that every mobile experience starts with the app store and invest in what we see as the future of mobile interactivity. What’s more, we wanted to be the people to create it.

A few days ago we were delighted to see an early step in that direction.

The Financial Times decided to skip the app store mentality and launch a HTML5 version of their service, optimised for iPad and iPhone viewing. This is obviously still a little siloed and doesn’t quite live up to the dream of “the one web”, but it’s getting there. You could see how, with a few tweaks and a bit of responsive thinking, this application could be made to work across any and all devices with a modern browser. As such I think the folks at Assanka should be applauded for this work and hope that it is the start of a much bigger trend in responsive design.

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Does (screen) size really matter? | June 7, 2011

There’s an interesting debate happening in the world of mobile design at the moment. In one camp we have the “nativists” who believe that the best mobile experiences are tailored to a particular device. These are the people focused on creating platform specific mobile apps and mobile websites. Then we have the “universalists” who believe in the “one web”, a place where all content and services can be delivered to multiple devices through the same URL.

This division is causing me a bit of a quandary. The designer in me appreciates the slightly more constrained experience that platform specific design provides, but realises that we risk opening a pandoras box of ever more variations. I also see some benefits of the app store mentality (such as ratings and reviews) but worry that it provides too much control to a small number of parties and is inherently unscalable.

In contrast the standardista in me loves the simplicity of a single web, but finds it hard to reconcile with my own usage patterns. There are just certain things I don’t enjoy doing on a small screen like booking a flight or filling in my taxes. Basically anything which requires lots of data being presented at the same time, complex navigational structures and multi-step processes. There are obviously ways of breaking this information down to satisfy fat fingers and a small screen size, but that makes it difficult to reconcile with a single URL pointing to a single resource or piece of data.

It’s easy for people to dismiss small screen sizes as just a matter of dimensions. You just need to reflow the content and fit it into a smaller space. However I find the screen real estate has a direct relation to my enjoyment of an experience. For instance, I feel completely absorbed by some movies when watching them on a big screen, but feel distracted when viewing the same movie on a small screen. So there are certain films which I prefer to watch at the cinema but would hate to watch on a flight. Similarly there are certain programs which I enjoy on the small screen, but would never want to see projected.

Research suggests that this happens in the physical world as well. In one experiment, researchers set people a variety of tasks and the only variance was the hight of the room. It turns out that rooms with high ceilings encouraged more expansive and creative thinking, while low ceiling heights promoted focus and concentration. It would seem that size does matter.

The same thing happens to me when I use devices with different form factors. The extra real estate of my desktop means that I’m more comfortable doing creative, expansive and exploratory activities. On my phone, I’m much more comfortable doing targeted, focussed and linear tasks. Research in this field is obviously needed, but if different devices and form factors do encourage different behaviour, it seems reasonable to treat the services you design and the content we present differently.

That’s not to say that every service or piece of content needs to be designed for every individual device. I believe that the bulk of sites can and should be built using responsive design as a default. However I also understand that there is no “one size fits all” approach to mobile design and that some services need to be tailored to specific devices and form factors, be that mobile sites or native apps. After all, complex problems often have complex and messy solutions. That’s were good design comes in.

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