Journal

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Wednesday, June 9th, 2021

The spirit of the staircase

The French have a wonderful phrase, lesprit de l’escalier. It describes that feeling when you’ve stormed out of the room after an argument and you’re already halfway down the stairs when you think of the perfect quip that you wish you had said.

I had a similar feeling last week but instead of wishing I had said something, I was wishing I had kept my mouth shut.

I have an annoying tendency to want to get the last word in. I don’t have a problem coming up with a barbed quip. My problem is wishing I could take them back.

This happened while I was hosting the conference portion of UX Fest last week. On the hand, I don’t want the discussions to be dull so I try to come up with thought-provoking points to bring up. But take that too far and it gets ugly. There’s a fine line between asking probing questions and just being mean (I’m reminded of headline in The Onion, “Devil’s Advocate Turns Out To Be Just An Asshole”).

Towards the end of the conference, there was a really good robust discussion underway. But I couldn’t resist getting in the last word. In the attempt to make myself look clever I ended up saying something hurtful and clumsy.

Fucking idiot.

I apologised, and it all worked out well in the end, but damn if I haven’t spent the last week on the staircase wishing I could turn back time and say …nothing.

Tuesday, June 8th, 2021

Deceptive dark patterns

When I was braindumping my thoughts prompted by last week’s UX Fest conference, I wrote about dark patterns.

Well, actually I wrote about deceptive dark patterns. That was a deliberate choice.

The phrase “dark pattern” is …problematic. We really don’t need to be associating darkness with negativity any more than we already do in our language and culture.

This is something I discussed with Melissa Smith after her talk on this topic. The consensus in general seems to be that the terminology is far from ideal, but it’s a bit late to change it now (I’m sure if Harry were coining the term today, he would choose a different phrase).

The defining characteristic of a “dark” pattern is that intentionally deceptive. How about we shift the terminology to talk about deceptive patterns?

Now, I get that inertia is a powerful force and it would be confusing to try do to a find-and-replace on all the resources that already exist on documenting “dark” patterns. So here’s a compromise:

From here on out, let’s start using the adjective “deceptive” in addition to the existing adjective “dark.” That’s what I did in my blog post. I only used the phrase “deceptive dark patterns.”

If we do that consistently, then after a while we’ll be able to drop one of those adjectives—“dark”—and refer to “deceptive patterns.”

Personally I’d love it if we could change the terminology overnight—and I’m quite heartened by the speed at which we changed our Github branches from “master” to “main”—but being pragmatic, I think this approach stands a greater chance of success.

Who’s with me?

Monday, June 7th, 2021

Weighing up UX

You can listen to an audio version of Weighing up UX.

This is the month of UX Fest 2021—this year’s online version of UX London. The festival continues with masterclasses every Tuesday in June and a festival day of talks every Thursday (tickets for both are still available). But it all kicked off with the conference part last week: three back-to-back days of talks.

I have the great pleasure of hosting the event so not only do I get to see a whole lot of great talks, I also get to quiz the speakers afterwards.

Right from day one, a theme emerged that continued throughout the conference and I suspect will continue for the rest of the festival too. That topic was metrics. Kind of.

See, metrics come up when we’re talking about A/B testing, growth design, and all of the practices that help designers get their seat at the table (to use the well-worn cliché). But while metrics are very useful for measuring design’s benefit to the business, they’re not really cut out for measuring user experience.

People have tried to quantify user experience benefits using measurements like NetPromoter Score, which is about as useful as reading tea leaves or chicken entrails.

So we tend to equate user experience gains with business gains. That makes sense. Happy users should be good for business. That’s a reasonable hypothesis. But it gets tricky when you need to make the case for improving the user experience if you can’t tie it directly to some business metric. That’s when we run into the McNamara fallacy:

Making a decision based solely on quantitative observations (or metrics) and ignoring all others.

The way out of this quantitative blind spot is to use qualitative research. But another theme of UX Fest was just how woefully under-represented researchers are in most organisations. And even when you’ve gone and talked to users and you’ve got their stories, you still need to play that back in a way that makes sense to the business folks. These are stories. They don’t lend themselves to being converted into charts’n’graphs.

And so we tend to fall back on more traditional metrics, based on that assumption that what’s good for user experience is good for business. But it’s a short step from making that equivalency to flipping the equation: what’s good for the business must, by definition, be good user experience. That’s where things get dicey.

Broadly speaking, the talks at UX Fest could be put into two categories. You’ve got talks covering practical subjects like product design, content design, research, growth design, and so on. Then you’ve got the higher-level, almost philosophical talks looking at the big picture and questioning the industry’s direction of travel.

The tension between these two categories was the highlight of the conference for me. It worked particularly well when there were back-to-back talks (and joint Q&A) featuring a hands-on case study that successfully pushed the needle on business metrics followed by a more cautionary talk asking whether our priorities are out of whack.

For example, there was a case study on growth design, which emphasised the importance of A/B testing for validation, immediately followed by a talk on deceptive dark patterns. Now, I suspect that if you were to A/B test a deceptive dark pattern, the test would validate its use (at least in the short term). It’s no coincidence that a company like Booking.com, which lives by the A/B sword, is also one of the companies sued for using distressing design patterns.

Using A/B tests alone is like using a loaded weapon without supervision. They only tell you what people do. And again, the solution is to make sure you’re also doing qualitative research—that’s how you find out why people are doing what they do.

But as I’ve pondered the lessons from last week’s conference, I’ve come to realise that there’s also a danger of focusing purely on the user experience. Hear me out…

At one point, the question came up as to whether deceptive dark patterns were ever justified. What if it’s for a good cause? What if the deceptive dark pattern is being used by an organisation actively campaigning to do good in the world?

In my mind, there was no question. A deceptive dark pattern is wrong, no matter who’s doing it.

(There’s also the problem of organisations that think they’re doing good in the world: I’m sure that every talented engineer that worked on Google AMP honestly believed they were acting in the best interests of the open web even as they worked to destroy it.)

Where it gets interesting is when you flip the question around.

Suppose you’re a designer working at an organisation that is decidedly not a force for good in the world. Say you’re working at Facebook, a company that prioritises data-gathering and engagement so much that they’ll tolerate insurrectionists and even genocidal movements. Now let’s say there’s talk in your department of implementing a deceptive dark pattern that will drive user engagement. But you, being a good designer who fights for the user, take a stand against this and you successfully find a way to ensure that Facebook doesn’t deploy that deceptive dark pattern.

Yay?

Does that count as being a good user experience designer? Yes, you’ve done good work at the coalface. But the overall business goal is like a deceptive dark pattern that’s so big you can’t take it in. Is it even possible to do “good” design when you’re inside the belly of that beast?

Facebook is a relatively straightforward case. Anyone who’s still working at Facebook can’t claim ignorance. They know full well where that company’s priorities lie. No doubt they sleep at night by convincing themselves they can accomplish more from the inside than without. But what about companies that exist in the grey area of being imperfect? Frankly, what about any company that relies on surveillance capitalism for its success? Is it still possible to do “good” design there?

There are no easy answers and that’s why it so often comes down to individual choice. I know many designers who wouldn’t work at certain companies …but they also wouldn’t judge anyone else who chooses to work at those companies.

At Clearleft, every staff member has two levels of veto on client work. You can say “I’m not comfortable working on this”, in which case, the work may still happen but we’ll make sure the resourcing works out so you don’t have anything to do with that project. Or you can say “I’m not comfortable with Clearleft working on this”, in which case the work won’t go ahead (this usually happens before we even get to the pitching stage although there have been one or two examples over the years where we’ve pulled out of the running for certain projects).

Going back to the question of whether it’s ever okay to use a deceptive dark pattern, here’s what I think…

It makes no difference whether it’s implemented by ProPublica or Breitbart; using a deceptive dark pattern is wrong.

But there is a world of difference in being a designer who works at ProPublica and being a designer who works at Breitbart.

That’s what I’m getting at when I say there’s a danger to focusing purely on user experience. That focus can be used as a way of avoiding responsibility for the larger business goals. Then designers are like the soldiers on the eve of battle in Henry V:

For we know enough, if we know we are the kings subjects: if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.

Thursday, June 3rd, 2021

Two decades of thesession.org

On June 3rd, 2001, I launched thesession.org. Happy twentieth birthday to The Session!

Although actually The Session predates its domain name by a few years. It originally launched as a subdirectory here on adactio.com with the unwieldly URL /session/session.shtml

A screenshot of the first version of The Session

That incarnation was more like a blog. I’d post the sheetmusic for a tune every week with a little bit of commentary. That worked fine until I started to run out of tunes. That’s when I made the site dynamic. People could sign up to become members of The Session. Then they could also post tunes and add comments.

A screenshot of the second version of The Session

That’s the version that is two decades old today.

The last really big change to the site happened in 2012. As well as a complete redesign, I introduced lots of new functionality.

A screenshot of the current version of The Session

In all of those incarnations, the layout was fluid …long before responsive design swept the web. That was quite unusual twenty years ago, but I knew it was the webby thing to do.

What’s also unusual is just keeping a website going for twenty years. Keeping a community website going for twenty years is practically unheard of. I’m very proud of The Session. Although, really, I’m just the caretaker. The site would literally be nothing without all the contributions that people have made.

I’ve more or less adopted a Wikipedia model for contributions. Some things, like tune settings, can only be edited by the person who submitted it But other things, like the track listing of a recording, or the details of a session, can be edited by any member of the site. And of course anyone can add a comment to any listing. There’s a certain amount of risk to that, but after testing it for two decades, it’s working out very nicely.

What’s really nice is when I get to meet my fellow members of The Session in meatspace. If I’m travelling somewhere and there’s a local session happening, I always get a warm welcome. I mean, presumably everyone would get a warm welcome at those sessions, but I’ve also had my fair share of free pints thanks to The Session.

I feel a great sense of responsibility with The Session. But it’s not a weight of responsibility—the way that many open source maintainers describe how their unpaid labour feels. The sense of responsibility I feel drives me. It gives me a sense of purpose.

The Session is older than any client work I’ve ever done. It’s older than any books I’ve written. It’s even older than Clearleft by a few years. Heck, it’s even older than this blog (just).

I’m 50 years old now. The Session is 20 years old. That’s quite a chunk of my life. I think it’s fair to say that it’s part of me now. Of all the things I’ve made so far in my life, The Session is the one I’m proudest of.

I’m looking forward to stewarding the site through the next twenty years.

Tuesday, June 1st, 2021

Broad Band

I like to alternate between reading fiction and non-fiction. The fiction is often of the science variety. Actually, so is the non-fiction.

There was a non-fiction book I had queued up for a while and I finally got around to reading. Broad Band by Claire L. Evans. Now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t read it earlier. I think I might’ve been remembering how I found Mar Hicks’s Programmed Inequality to be a bit of a slog—a fascinating topic, but written in a fairly academic style. Broad Band covers some similar ground, but wow, is the writing style in a class of its own!

This book is pretty much the perfect mix. The topic is completely compelling—a history of women in computing. The stories are rivetting—even when I thought I knew the history, this showed me how little I knew. And the voice of the book is pure poetry.

It’s not often that I read a book that I recommend wholeheartedly to everyone. I prefer to tailor my recommendations to individual situations. But in the case of Broad Band, I honesty think that anyone would enjoy it.

I absolutely loved it. So did Cory Doctorow:

Because she is a brilliant and lyrical writer she brings these women to life, turns them into fully formed characters, makes you see and feel their life stories, frustrations and triumphs.

Even the most celebrated women of tech history – Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper – leap off the page as people, not merely historical personages or pioneers. Again, these are stories I thought I knew, and realized I didn’t.

Yes! That!

Read it for yourself and see what you think.

Monday, May 31st, 2021

Summertime in England

On Thursday of last week, Summer arrived in England. I accept full responsibility for this. That morning I left the house early and wore a winter coat. So of course the day was filled with glorious sunshine.

I was up early to head into the Clearleft studio to do a tech check and some pre-records for the upcoming UX Fest. We’ve turned a meeting room into a very swanky-looking recording studio with proper lights, mics, and camera. I’ll be hosting UX Fest, channeling my inner Alan Partridge and Ron Burgundy.

Recording an interview with the brilliant @KrysHiggins for next week’s @UXLondon #UXFest. (I made sure my shirt matched her excellent new book, Better Onboarding by @ABookApart.) https://abookapart.com/products/better-onboarding

Being back in the studio was nice. Some of my Clearleft colleagues joined the agency during The Situation so this was my first chance to meet some of them face to face (or facemask to facemask at least).

The next day I had even more opportunity to see my co-workers without the barriers of computer screens. We had a workplace walk in the countryside to mark one year of becoming an employee-owned agency. We rendezvoused at Devil’s Dyke and walked a bit of the Sussex countryside, just enough to work up an appetite and a thirst to be satiated at the nearby Shepherd and Dog pub in Fulking (near the brilliantly named Fulking Hill). We sat at tables outside, had pints of ale, and a proper pub lunch, chatting all the while, just like in The Before Times.

A nice day for a @Clearleft walk in the country.

When I got back to Brighton I met up with Jessica for a beer in the sun before wandered down to the beach together to meet our friend Kate and celebrate her birthday.

Hanging out on the beach.

Two days of good weather was a blessing, but it didn’t stop there. The next day, Saturday, was even sunnier. We spent the day working in the garden. We planted salads in our raised beds and then fortified those raised beds to make them impenatrable to the family of foxes living in our neighbourbood. Don’t get me wrong, the fox cubs are very cute. I just don’t want them digging up our salads.

There are multiple fox cubs hanging out in the garden. Fuzzy little cuties! 🦊

On Sunday, Jessica and I sauntered up the hill to Brighton Racecourse so we could cheer on Jake as he finished his hundred kilometre walk from London to Brighton. Normally this would be a very strange behaviour, but it was all for a good cause.

After that, we had a pub lunch (outdoors, of course) before heading home. I spent the rest of the day sitting out in the garden, admiring the handiwork of the previous day, reading and occasionally dozing.

Today it’s more of the same. Glorious sunshine. Sitting in the garden. Reading. Playing some tunes on the mandolin. Looking forward to grilling outside for the third evening in a row.

Sitting in the sunshine, playing tunes on my mandolin. ☀️ 🎶

It feels like something is changing and it’s not just the weather. The Situation, while far from ending, is certainly morphing. I still don’t plan on spending any time indoors, but with weather this good, I don’t need to.

In two weeks time I’ll get my second jab of vaccine. Two weeks after that I can start letting my guard down a bit more. Until then, I’ll be staying outdoors. If the weather continues like this, that won’t be a hardship.

Sunday, May 23rd, 2021

Speaking about sci-fi

I’m going to be speaking at the Beyond Tellerrand “Stay Curious” event on June 16th. But I’m not going to be talking about anything (directly) web-related…

The topic for the evening is science fiction. There’ll be a talk from me, a talk from Steph, and then a discussion, which I’m really looking forward to.

I got together with Steph last week, which was really fun—we could’ve talked for hours! We compared notes and figured out a way to divvy up the speaking slots. Steph is going to do a deep dive into one specific subgenre of sci-fi. So to set the scene, I’m going to give a broad but shallow overview of the history of sci-fi. To keep things managable, I’m only going to be talking about sci-fi literature (although we can get into films, TV, and anything else in the discussion afterwards).

But I don’t want to just regurgitate facts like a Wikipedia article. I’ve decided that the only honest thing to do is give my own personal history with sci-fi. Instead of trying to give an objective history, I’m going to tell a personal story …even if that means being more open and vulnerable.

I think I’ve got the arc of the story I want to tell. I’ve been putting slides together and I’m quite excited now. I’ve realised I’ve got quite a lot to say. But I don’t want the presentation to get too long. I want to keep it short and snappy so that there’s plenty of time for the discussion afterwards. That’s going to be the best part!

That’s where you come in. The discussion will be driven by the questions and chat from the attendees. Tickets are available on a pay-what-you-want basis, with a minimum price of just €10. It’ll be an evening event, starting at 6:30pm UK time, 7:30pm in central Europe. So if you’re in the States, that’ll be your morning or afternoon.

Come along if you have any interest in sci-fi. If you have no interest in sci-fi, then please come along—we can have a good discusison about it.

See you on June 16th!

Saturday, May 15th, 2021

The cage

I subscribe to Peter Gasston’s newsletter, The Tech Landscape. It’s good. Peter’s a smart guy with his finger on the pulse of many technologies that are beyond my ken. I recommend subscribing.

But I was very taken aback by what he wrote in issue 202. It was to do with algorithmic recommendation engines.

This week I want to take a little dump on a tweet I read. I’m not going to link to it (I’m not that person), but it basically said something like: “I’m afraid to Google something because I don’t want the algorithm to think I like it, and I’m afraid to click a link because I don’t want the algorithm to show me more like it… what a cage.”

I saw the same tweet. It resonated with me. I had responded with a link to a post I wrote a while back called Get safe. That post made two points:

  1. GET requests shouldn’t have side effects. Adding to a dossier on someone’s browsing habits definitely counts as a side effect.
  2. It is literally a fundamental principle of the web platform that it should be safe to visit a web page.

But Peter describes ubiquitous surveillance as a feature, not a bug:

It’s observing what someone likes or does, then trying to make recommendations for more things like it—whether that’s books, TV shows, clothes, advertising, or whatever. It works on probability, so it’s going to make better guesses the more it knows you; if you like ten things of type A, then liking one thing of type B shouldn’t be enough to completely change its recommendations. The problem is, we don’t like “the algorithm” if it doesn’t work, and we don’t like it if works too well (“creepy!”). But it’s not sinister, and it’s not a cage.

He would be correct if the balance of power were tipped towards the person actively looking for recommendations. As I said in my earlier post:

Don’t get me wrong: building a profile of someone based on their actions isn’t inherently wrong. If a user taps on “like” or “favourite” or “bookmark”, they are actively telling the server to perform an update (and so those actions should be POST requests). But do you see the difference in where the power lies?

When Peter says “it’s not sinister, and it’s not a cage” that may be true for him, but that is not a shared feeling, as the original tweet demonstrates. I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss someone else’s psychological pain because you don’t think they “get it”. I’m pretty sure everyone “gets” how recommendation engines are supposed to work. That’s not the issue. Trying to provide relevant content isn’t the problem. It’s the unbelievably heavy-handed methods that make it feel like a cage.

Peter uses the metaphor of a record shop:

“The algorithm” is the best way to navigate a world of infinite choice; imagine you went to a record shop (remember them?) which had every recording ever released; how would you find new music? You’d either buy music by bands you know you already liked, or you’d take a pure gamble on something—which most of the time would be a miss. So you’d ask a store worker, and they’d recommend the music they liked—but that’s no guarantee you’d like it. A good worker would ask what type of music you like, and recommend music based on that—you might not like all the recommendations, but there’s more of a chance you’d like some. That’s just what “the algorithm” does.

But that’s not true. You don’t ask “the algorithm” for a recommendation—it foists them on you whether you want them or not. A more apt metaphor would be that you walked by a record shop once and the store worker came out and followed you down the street, into your home, and watched your every move for the rest of your life.

What Peter describes sounds great—a helpful knowledgable software agent that you ask for recommendations. But that’s not what “the algorithm” is. And that’s why it feels like a cage. That’s why it is a cage.

The original tweet was an open, honest, and vulnerable insight into what online recommendation engines feel like. That’s a valuable insight that should be taken on board, not dismissed.

And what a lack of imagination to look at an existing broken system—that doesn’t even provide good recommendations while making people afraid to click on links—and shrug and say that this is the best we can do. If this really is “is the best way to navigate a world of infinite choice” then it’s no wonder that people feel like they need to go on a digital detox and get away from their devices in order to feel normal. It’s like saying that decapitation is the best way of solving headaches.

Imagine living in a surveillance state like East Germany, and saying “Well, how else is the government supposed to make informed decisions without constantly monitoring its citizens?” I think it’s more likely that you’d feel like you’re in a cage.

Apples to oranges? Kind of. But whether it’s surveillance communism or surveillance capitalism, there’s a shared methodology at work. They’re both systems that disempower people for the supposedly greater good of amassing data. Both are built on the false premise that problems can be solved by getting more and more data. If that results in collateral damage to people’s privacy and mental health, well …it’s all for the greater good, right?

It’s fucking bullshit. I don’t want to live in that cage and I don’t want anyone else to have to live in it either. I’m going to do everything I can to tear it down.

Thursday, May 13th, 2021

Hosting UX Fest

I quite enjoy interviewing people. I don’t mean job interviews. I mean, like, talk show interviews. I’ve had a lot of fun over the years moderating panel discussions: @media Ajax in 2007, SxSW in 2008, Mobilism in 2011, the Progressive Web App Dev Summit and EnhanceConf in 2016.

I’ve even got transcripts of some panels I’ve moderated:

I enjoyed each and every one. I also had the pleasure of interviewing the speakers at every Responsive Day Out. Hosting events like that is a blast, but what with The Situation and all, there hasn’t been much opportunity for hosting conferences.

Well, I’m going to be hosting an event next month: UX Fest. It’s this year’s online version of UX London.

An online celebration of digital design, taking place throughout June 2021.

I am simultaneously excited and nervous. I’m excited because I’ll have the chance to interview a whole bunch of really smart people. I’m nervous because it’s all happening online and that might feel quite different to an in-person discussion.

But I have an advantage. While the interviews will be live, the preceding talks will be pre-recorded. That means I have to time watch and rewatch each talk, spot connections between them, and think about thought-provoking questions for each speaker.

So that’s what I’m doing between now and the beginning of June. If you’d like to bear witness to the final results, I encourage you to get a ticket for UX Fest. You can come to the three-day conference in the first week of June, or you can get a ticket for the festival spread out over the following three Thursdays in June, or you can get a combo ticket for both and save some money.

There’s an inclusion programme for the conference and festival days:

Anyone from an underrepresented group is invited to apply. We especially invite and welcome Black, indigenous & people of colour, LGBTQIA+ people and people with disabilities.

Here’s the application form.

There’ll also be a whole bunch of hands-on masterclasses throughout June that you can book individually. I won’t be hosting those though. I’ll have plenty to keep me occupied hosting the conference and the festival.

I hope you’ll join me along with Krystal Higgins, David Dylan Thomas, Catt Small, Scott Kubie, Temi Adeniyi, Teresa Torres, Tobias Ahlin and many more wonderful speakers—it’s going to fun!

Tuesday, May 11th, 2021

Work at Clearleft

A little while back, I wrote about how much I like the job description of a design engineer. I still have issues with the “engineer” part, but overall it’s a great way to describe a front-end developer who works on the front of the front end: the outputs that end users interact with: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. If it’s delivered in a web browser, then it’s design engineering.

Perhaps you also prefer the front of the front end to the back of the front end. Perhaps you also like to spend your time thinking about resilience, performance, and accessibility rather than build pipelines and frameworks. Perhaps you’d like to work with like-minded people.

Clearleft is hiring a midweight design engineer. Perhaps it’s you.

If you’d like to use your development talents in the service of good design, you should apply. And remember, you’d be working for yourself: Clearleft is an employee-owned agency.

You don’t have to be based in Brighton. You can work remotely, although we’re expecting that a monthly face-to-face gathering will become the norm after The Situation ends. So if you’re based somewhere like London, that would work out nicely. That said, if you’re based somewhere like London, this might also be the ideal opportunity to make a move to the seaside.

You do have to be eligible to work in the UK. Alas, that pool has shrunk somewhat. Thanks, Brexit.

Perhaps you think you’re not qualified. Apply anyway. You’ve got nothing to lose.

Perhaps this role isn’t for you, but you know someone who might fit the bill. Please tell them. Spread the word.

We’d especially love to hear from people under-represented in design and technology.

Come and work with us.