Here are the most interesting takes I’ve found so far:
Here are the most interesting takes I’ve found so far:
Some welcome perspective on healthcare, conservation, human rights, and energy.
2020 was the year of the virus. 2021 was the year of the vaccine …and the virus, obviously, but still it felt like the year we fought back. With science!
Whenever someone writes and shares one of these year-end retrospectives the result is, by its very nature, personal. These last two years are different though. We all still have our own personal perspectives, but we also all share a collective experience of The Ongoing Situation.
Like, I can point to three pivotal events in 2021 and I bet you could point to the same three for you:
So while on the one hand we’re entering 2022 in a depressingly similar way to how we entered 2021 with COVID-19 running rampant, on the other hand, the odds have changed. We can calculate risk. We’ve got more information. And most of all, we’ve got these fantastic vaccines.
I summed up last year in terms of all the things I didn’t do. I could do the same for 2021, but there’s only one important thing that didn’t happen—I didn’t catch a novel coronavirus.
It’s not like I didn’t take some risks. While I was mostly a homebody, I did make excursions to Zürich and Lisbon. One long weekend in London was particurly risky.
At the end of the year, right as The Omicron Variant was ramping up, Jessica and I travelled to Ireland to see my mother, and then travelled to the States to see her family. We managed to dodge the Covid bullets both times, for which I am extremely grateful. My greatest fear throughout The Situation hasn’t been so much about catching Covid myself, but passing it on to others. If I were to give it to a family member or someone more vulnerable than me, I don’t think I could forgive myself.
Now that we’ve seen our families (after a two-year break!), I’m feeling more sanguine about this next stage. I’ll be hunkering down for the next while to ride out this wave, but if I still end up getting infected, at least I won’t have any travel plans to cancel.
But this is meant to be a look back at the year that’s just finished, not a battle plan for 2022.
There were some milestones in 2021:
This means that my websites are 2/5ths of my own age. In ten years time, my websites will be 1/2 of my own age.
Most of my work activities were necessarily online, though I did manage the aforementioned trips to Switzerland and Portugal to speak at honest-to-goodness real live in-person events. The major projects were:
Outside of work, my highlights of 2021 mostly involved getting to play music with other people—something that didn’t happen much in 2020. Band practice with Salter Cane resumed in late 2021, as did some Irish music sessions. Both are now under an Omicron hiatus but this too shall pass.
Another 2021 highlight was a visit by Tantek in the summer. He was willing to undergo quarantine to get to Brighton, which I really appreciate. It was lovely hanging out with him, even if all our social activities were by necessity outdoors.
But, like I said, the main achievement in 2021 was not catching COVID-19, and more importantly, not passing it on to anyone else. Time will tell whether or not that winning streak will be sustainable in 2022. But at least I feel somewhat prepared for it now, thanks to those magnificent vaccines.
2021 was a shitty year for a lot of people. I feel fortunate that for me, it was merely uneventful. If my only complaint is that I didn’t get to travel and speak as much I’d like, well boo-fucking-hoo, I’ll take it. I’ve got my health. My family members have their health. I don’t take that for granted.
Maybe 2022 will turn out to be similar—shitty for a lot of people, and mostly unenventful for me. Or perhaps 2022 will be a year filled with joyful in-person activities, like conferences and musical gatherings. Either way, I’m ready.
I posted to adactio.com 968 times in 2021.
March was the busiest month with 118 posts.
My travel map for the year includes one transatlantic trip: Christmas in Arizona, where I’m writing this end-of-year wrap-up before getting back on a plane to England tomorrow, Omicron willing.
I’m glad that I’m tracking my reading here on my own site. About halfway through the year I thought that I was doing a pretty good job of reading a mix of books from men and women, but a glance at my reading list showed that wasn’t the case at all and I was able to adjust my intake accordingly. I wasn’t doing as badly as some but by just keeping an ongoing reading list is a handy to spot any worrying trends.
I continued my practice of alternating between fiction and non-fiction. It’s working for me.
Now that the year is at an end, I’m going to my traditional round-up and give a little review of each book. I’m also going to engage in the pointless and annoying practice of assigning a rating out of five stars for each book.
I was reading this at the end of 2020 and finished it at the start of 2021. I let it wash over me, which I think is how this impressionistic and rightly short book is meant to be enjoyed. But I might just be telling myself that because I wasn’t following it closely enough.
A terrific book about human nature. As I wrote at the time, it makes a great companion piece to—and is influenced by—Rebecca Solnit’s excellent A Paradise Built In Hell.
The only frustrating facet of Bregman’s book is that it’s also influenced by Yuval Noah Harari’s mess Sapiens. That’s probably where it gets its wrong-headed fantasy about the evils of the agricultural revolution and the glories of a pre-civilisational nomadic lifestyle. Fortunately it sounds like this pernicious myth is in for a well-earned skewering in Davids Graeber and Wengrow’s new book The Dawn of Everything
Apart from that though, Humankind is pretty darn wonderful.
Reading this collection of stories, poems and essays was my way of travelling to Galway when a global pandemic prevented me from actually going there. The quality was consistently high and some of the stories really stayed with me.
Another pulp paperback of short stories from Brian Aldiss. I wrote about reading this book.
Reading a title from A Book Apart almost feels like a cheat—the books are laser-focused into a perfectly brief length. This one is no exception and the topic is one that every web designer and developer needs to be versed in.
A thoroughly enjoyable first-contact story set in Nigeria. It’s absolutely dripping in atmosphere and features fully-formed characters that feel grounded even when in the middle of fantastical events.
Yeah, that’s right: five stars! This books is superb, the perfect mix of subject matter and style as I wrote as soon as I finished it. What a writer!
This is a bit of a cheat on my part. It’s a short graphic novel, and the story is told more through pictures than words. The story is somewhat slight but the imagary, like the landscape being described, is hauntingly sparse.
This one divided opinion. I thought that, on the whole, the novel worked. There are moments of seeing the world through a robot’s eyes that feel truly alien. It’s not in the same league as Never Let Me Go, but it does share the same feeling of bleak inevitability. So not a feelgood book then.
It pairs nicely with Ian McEwan’s recent Machines Like Us to see how two respected mainstream authors approach a genre topic.
Sharp and scathing, this is a thorough exposé. Sometimes it feels a little too thorough—there are a lot of data points that might have been better placed in footnotes. Then again, the whole point of this book is that the data really, really matters so I totally get why it’s presented this way.
Properly good human-level space opera with oodles of political intrigue. I will definitely be reading the next book in the series.
I really enjoyed this account of the friendship between Tracey Thorn and Lindy Morrison. I’m a huge Go-Betweens fan, but the band’s story is almost always told from the perspective of the boys, Grant and Robert. You could say that those narratives have (puts on sunglasses) …Everything But The Girl.
Anyway, this was a refreshing alternative. Writing about music is notoriously tricky, but this might be the best biography of a musician I’ve read.
I loved this! If I tried to give a plot synopsis, it would sound ridiculous, like someone describing their dreams. But somehow this works in a way that feels cohesive and perfectly internally consistent. Just read it—you won’t regret it.
I enjoy reading books about the craft of writing and this is one that I had been meaning to read for years. It didn’t disappoint. That said, I think I might have enjoyed it more as an autobiography of an American childhood than as a guide to writing. Some of the writing advice is dispensed as gospel when really, that’s just like your opinion, man.
A quirky collection of 19th century and early 20th century short stories. Today we’d probably classify them as fantasy more than science fiction. What was really interesting was reading the biographies of the writers. The collection has an impressive amount of stories by fascinating women. Kudos to Jack Fennell for the curation.
An enjoyable little study of dystopian film sports (I’ve always wanted to do a movie marathon on that theme). The format of this work is interesting. It’s not a full-length book. Instead it’s like a quick exploration of the topic to see whether it should be a full-length book. Personally, I think this is enough. Frankly, I can think of plenty of full-length non-fiction books that should’ve been more like this length.
Sci-fi? Fantasy? Magical realism? This has a premise that’s tricky to pull off, but it works. That said, I think it could’ve been shorter. I enjoyed this but I’m not sure if I’ll be reading any sequels.
Wonderful! A book about facts and figures with a very human soul. It can be summed up in this quote:
The world cannot be understood without numbers. And it cannot be understood with numbers alone.
Sometimes the self-effacing style of the late Hans Rosling can be a little grating, but overall this is a perfectly balanced book.
Dripping with creepy Brexity atmosphere, this is more of a slow rising damp than a slow burn. But while the writing is terrific at the sentence level, it didn’t quite pull me in as a book. I admired it more than I enjoyed it.
More escapist wish fulfilment in the Lady Astronaut series. These books aren’t great literature by any stretch, but I find the premise of an alternative history of the space race very appealing (like For All Mankind). This third book has a change of narrator and a change of scene: the moon.
Absolutely brilliant! Both the book and the author, I mean. Steve Shirley is a hero of mine so it’s gratifying to find that she’s a great writer along with being a great person. Her story is by turns astonishing and heartbreaking. She conveys it all in an honest, heartfelt, but matter-of-fact manner.
I didn’t expect to find resonances in here about my own work, but it turns out that Clearleft wouldn’t have been able to become an employee-owned company without the groundwork laid down by Steve Shirley.
If you’re ever tempted to read some self-help business autobiography by some dude from Silicon Valley, don’t—read this instead.
The third in the Binti series of novellas is just as good as the previous two. This is crying out to be turned into a television show that I would most definitely watch.
Excellent writing once again from Octavia Butler. Like Kindred, this can be harrowing at times but there’s a central core of humanity running through even the darkest moments. I’ll definitely be reading Parable of the Talents.
I wasn’t that into the first book in the Wayfarers series. I enjoyed the second one more. When it came to this third installment, I was completely won over. I was in just the right mood for it after the heaviness of Parable of the Sower. There’s not much in the way of threat, but plenty in the way of warmth. I’m also a sucker for stories of generation starships.
An enjoyable series of vignettes told from the viewpoint of a young boy growing up in rural Ireland. I was hoping for more stories of the music, but if you’re involved in trad music in any way, this is well worth a read.
Now it’s time to choose one book of the year from the fiction stack and one book of the year from non-fiction.
In any other year I think Parable of the Sower would be the fiction winner, but this year I’m going to have to go for Piranesi.
There’s stiff competition in the non-fiction category: Humankind, Factfulness, and Let It Go are all excellent. But it’s got to be Broad Band.
Most of these books are available on Bookshop if you fancy reading any of them.
And for context, here’s:
Back in 2014 Vitaly asked me if I’d be the host for Smashing Conference in Freiburg. I jumped at the chance. I thought it would be an easy gig. All of the advantages of speaking at a conference without the troublesome need to actually give a talk.
As it turned out, it was quite a bit of work:
It wasn’t just a matter of introducing each speaker—there was also a little chat with each speaker after their talk, so I had to make sure I was paying close attention to each and every talk, thinking of potential questions and conversation points. After two days of that, I was a bit knackered.
Last month, I hosted an other event, but this time it was online: UX Fest. Doing the post-talk interviews was definitely a little weirder online. It’s not quite the same as literally sitting down with someone. But the online nature of the event did provide one big advantage…
To minimise technical hitches on the day, and to ensure that the talks were properly captioned, all the speakers recorded their talks ahead of time. That meant I had an opportunity to get a sneak peek at the talks and prepare questions accordingly.
UX Fest had a day of talks every Thursday in June. There were four talks per Thursday. I started prepping on the Monday.
First of all, I just watched all the talks and let them wash me over. At this point, I’d often think “I’m not sure if I can come up with any questions for this one!” but I’d let the talks sit there in my subsconscious for a while. This was also a time to let connections between talks bubble up.
Then on the Tuesday and Wednesday, I went through the talks more methodically, pausing the video every time I thought of a possible question. After a few rounds of this, I inevitably ended up with plenty of questions, some better than others. So I then re-ordered them in descending levels of quality. That way if I didn’t get to the questions at the bottom of the list, it was no great loss.
In theory, I might not get to any of my questions. That’s because attendees could also ask questions on the day via a chat window. I prioritised those questions over my own. Because it’s not about me.
On some days there was a good mix of audience questions and my own pre-prepared questions. On other days it was mostly my own questions.
Either way, it was important that I didn’t treat the interview like a laundry list of questions to get through. It was meant to be a conversation. So the answer to one question might touch on something that I had made a note of further down the list, in which case I’d run with that. Or the conversation might go in a really interesting direction completely unrelated to the questions or indeed the talk.
Above all, these segments needed to be engaging and entertaining in a personable way, more like a chat show than a post-game press conference. So even though I had done lots of prep for interviewing each speaker, I didn’t want to show my homework. I wanted each interview to feel like a natural flow.
To quote the old saw, this kind of spontaneity takes years of practice.
There was an added complication when two speakers shared an interview slot for a joint Q&A. Not only did I have to think of questions for each speaker, I also had to think of questions that would work for both speakers. And I had to keep track of how much time each person was speaking so that the chat wasn’t dominated by one person more than the other. This was very much like moderating a panel, something that I enjoy very much.
In the end, all of the prep paid off. The conversations flowed smoothly and I was happy with some of the more thought-provoking questions that I had researched ahead of time. The speakers seemed happy too.
Y’know, there are not many things I’m really good at. I’m a mediocre developer, and an even worse designer. I’m okay at writing. But I’m really good at public speaking. And I think I’m pretty darn good at this hosting lark too.
Here’s a great write-up (with sketch notes) of last week’s conference portion of UX Fest:
There was a through-line of ethics through the whole conference that I enjoyed. The “design is the underdog” is tired and no longer true. I think that asking ourselves “now that we are here, how do we avoid causing harm?” is a much more mature conversation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Good to see Google, Mozilla, and Apple collaborating on fixing cross-browser CSS compatability issues:
You can track progress here.
First you cope and then you adapt. The kicker: once you adapt, you may not want to go back.
Don’t get me wrong: it would be great if portals led to navigation transitions, but right now it looks like the focus is more on “like making an iframe go full page” e.g. an item in a news carousel on a search engine.
I feel very lucky to have known @JamesWillWeb—a huge inspiration to me and many others.
I will miss him terribly.
@aaronpk I’m testing my replies’n’stuff.