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Wednesday, August 12th, 2020

Design sprints on the Clearleft podcast

The sixth episode of the Clearleft podcast is now live: design sprints!

It comes in at just under 24 minutes, which feels just about right to me. Once again, it’s a dive into one topic that asks “What is this?”, “What does this mean?”, and “Where did this come from?”

I could’ve invited just about any of the practitioners at Clearleft to join me on this one, but I setttled on Chris, who’s always erudite and sharp.

I also asked ex-Clearleftie Jerlyn to have a chat. You’ll notice that’s been a bit of theme on the Clearleft podcast; asking people who used to work at Clearleft to share their thoughts. I’d quite like to do at least an episode—maybe even a whole season—featuring ex-Clearlefties exclusively. So many great people have worked at the agency of the years, Jerlyn being a prime example.

I’d also like to do an episode some time with the regular contractors we’ve worked with at Clearleft. On this episode, I asked the super-smart Tom Prior to join me.

I recorded those three chats over the past couple of weeks. And it was kind of funny how there was, of course, a looming presence over the topic of design sprints: Jake Knapp. I had sent him an email too but I got an auto-responder saying that he was super busy and would take a while to respond. So I kind of mentally wrote it off.

I spent last week assembling and editing the podcast with the excellent contributions from Jerlyn, Chris, and Tom. But it did feel a bit like Waiting For Godot the way that Jake’s book was being constantly referenced.

Then, on the weekend, Godot showed up.

Jake said he’d have time for a chat on Wednesday. Aargh! That’s the release date for the podcast! I don’t suppose Monday would work?

Very graciously, Jake agreed to a Monday chat (at an ungodly early hour in his time zone). I got an excellent half hour of material straight from the horse’s mouth—a very excitable and fast-talking horse, too.

That left me with just a day to work the material into the episode! I felt like a journalist banging on the keyboard at midnight, ready to run into the printing room shouting “Stop the press!” …although I’m sure the truth is that nobody but me would notice if an episode were released a little late.

Anyway, it all got done in the end and I think it turned out pretty great!

Have a listen for yourself and see what you make of it.

This was the final episode of the first season. I’ll now take a little break from podcasting as I plot and plan for the next season. Watch this space! …and, y’know, subscribe to the podcast.

Monday, April 20th, 2020

Overlay gap

I think a lot about Danielle’s talk at Patterns Day last year.

Around about the six minute mark she starts talking about gaps and overlaps.

Gaps are where hidden complexity live. If we don’t have a category to cover it, in effect it becomes invisible. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Unidentified gaps cause inconsistency and confusion.

Overlaps occur when two separate categories encompass some of the same areas of responsibility. They cause conflict, duplication of effort, and unnecessary friction.

This is the bit I keep thinking about. It’s such an insightful lens to view things through. On just about any project, tensions are almost due to either gaps (“I thought someone else was doing that”) or overlaps (“Oh, you’re doing that? I thought we were doing that”).

When I was talking to Gerry on his new podcast recently, we were trying to figure out why web performance is in such a woeful state. I mused that there may be a gap. Perhaps designers think it’s a technical problem and developers think it’s a design problem. I guess you could try to bridge this gap by having someone whose job is to focus entirely on performance. But I suspect the better—but harder—solution is to create a shared culture of performance, of the kind Lara wrote about in her book:

Performance is truly everyone’s responsibility. Anyone who affects the user experience of a site has a relationship to how it performs. While it’s possible for you to single-handedly build and maintain an incredibly fast experience, you’d be constantly fighting an uphill battle when other contributors touch the site and make changes, or as the Web continues to evolve.

I suspect there’s a similar ownership gap at play when it comes to the ubiquitous obtrusive overlays that are plastered on so many websites these days.

Kirill Grouchnikov recently published a gallery of screenshots showcasing the beauty of modern mobile websites:

There are two things common between the websites in these screenshots that I took yesterday.

  1. They are beautifully designed, with great typography, clear branding, all optimized for readability.
  2. I had to install Firefox, Adblock Plus and uBlock Origin, as well as manually select and remove additional elements such as subscription overlays.

The web can be beautiful. Except it’s not right now.

How is this dissonance possible? How can designers and developers who clearly care about the user experience be responsible for unleashing such user-hostile interfaces?

PM/Legal/Marketing made me do it

I get that. But surely the solution can’t be to shrug our shoulders, pass the buck, and say “not my job.” Somebody designed each one of those obtrusive overlays. Somebody coded up each one and pushed them into production.

It’s clear that this is a problem of communication and understanding, rather than a technical problem. As always. We like to talk about how hard and complex our technical work is, but frankly, it’s a lot easier to get a computer to do what you want than to convince a human. Not least because you also need to understand what that other human wants. As Danielle says:

Recognising the gaps and overlaps is only half the battle. If we apply tools to a people problem, we will only end up moving the problem somewhere else.

Some issues can be solved with better tools or better processes. In most of our workplaces, we tend to reach for tools and processes by default, because they feel easier to implement. But as often as not, it’s not a technology problem. It’s a people problem. And the solution actually involves communication skills, or effective dialogue.

So let’s say it is someone in the marketing department who is pushing to have an obtrusive newsletter sign-up form get shoved in the user’s face. Talk to them. Figure out what their goals are—what outcome are they hoping to get to. If they don’t seem to understand the user-experience implications, talk to them about that. But it needs to be a two-way conversation. You need to understand what they need before you start telling them what you want.

I realise that makes it sound patronisingly simple, and I know that in actuality it’s a sisyphean task. It may be that genuine understanding between people is the wickedest of design problems. But even if this problem seems insurmoutable, at least you’d be tackling the right problem.

Because the web can’t survive like this.

Wednesday, April 1st, 2020

Home (BBC film of J. G. Ballard’s The Enormous Space) - YouTube

Here’s a BBC adaption of that J.G. Ballard short story I recorded. It certainly feels like a story for our time.

Home (BBC film of J. G. Ballard's The Enormous Space)

Tuesday, March 24th, 2020

BBC - Future Media Standards & Guidelines - Accessibility Guidelines v2.0

A timely reminder:

The minimum dependency for a web site should be an internet connection and the ability to parse HTML.

Tuesday, March 10th, 2020

BBC World Service - 13 Minutes to the Moon, Season 2: The Apollo 13 story

The best podcast of last year is back for another season, this time on the Apollo 13 mission.

Sunday, June 23rd, 2019

BBC World Service - 13 Minutes to the Moon

I’ve been huffduffing every episode of this terrific podcast from Kevin Fong. It features plenty of my favourite Apollo people: Mike Collins, Margaret Hamilton, and Charlie Duke.

Saturday, June 22nd, 2019

BBC Shows and Tours - Shows - James Burke: Our Man on the Moon

I wish I were here for this (I’m going to be over in Ireland that week)—an evening with James Burke, Britain’s voice of Apollo 11.

Here is your chance to find out what went on behind the scenes as James revisits the final moments of the Apollo mission. He’ll recreate the drama, struggling to make sense of flickering images from NASA and working with the limitations of 1960s technology. We’ll hear what went wrong as well as what went right on the night! Illustrated with amazing archive material from both the BBC and NASA, this will be the story of the moon landings brought to you by the man who became a broadcasting legend.

Sunday, June 16th, 2019

BBC - Future - How to build something that lasts 10,000 years

As part of the BBC’s ongoing series on deep time, Alexander Rose describes the research he’s been doing for the clock of the long now—materials, locations, ideas …all the pieces that have historically combined to allow artifacts to survive.

Monday, April 15th, 2019

James Bridle / New Ways of Seeing

James has a new four part series on Radio 4. Episodes will be available for huffduffing shortly after broadcast.

New Ways of Seeing considers the impact of digital technologies on the way we see, understand, and interact with the world. Building on John Berger’s seminal Ways of Seeing from 1972, the show explores network infrastructures, digital images, systemic bias, education and the environment, in conversation with a number of contemporary art practitioners.

Sunday, July 8th, 2018

BBC News on HTTPS – BBC Design + Engineering – Medium

BBC News has switched to HTTPS—hurrah!

Here, one of the engineers writes on Ev’s blog about the challenges involved. Personally, I think this is far more valuable and inspiring to read than the unempathetic posts claiming that switching to HTTPS is easy.

Update: Paul found the original URL for this …weird that they don’t link to it from the syndicated version.

Monday, July 2nd, 2018

BBC Computer Literacy Project Archive

Here’s a treasure trove of eighties nerd nostalgia:

In the 1980s, the BBC explored the world of computing in The Computer Literacy Project. They commissioned a home computer (the BBC Micro) and taught viewers how to program.

The Computer Literacy Project chronicled a decade of information technology and was a milestone in the history of computing in Britain, helping to inspire a generation of coders.

Sunday, June 10th, 2018

Saturday, May 12th, 2018

I Used The Web For A Day With JavaScript Turned Off — Smashing Magazine

Following on from Charlie’s experiment last year, Chris Ashton has been assessing which sites rely on JavaScript, and which sites use it in a more defensive, resilient way. Some interesting results in here.

A good core experience is indicative of a well-structured web page, which, in turn, is usually a good sign for SEO and for accessibility. It’s usually a well designed web page, as the designer and developer have spent time and effort thinking about what’s truly core to the experience. Progressive enhancement means more robust experiences, with fewer bugs in production and fewer individual browser quirks, because we’re letting the platform do the job rather than trying to write it all from scratch.

Wednesday, February 28th, 2018

Offline itineraries with service workers

The Trivago website is a progressive web app. That means it

  1. is served over HTTPS,
  2. has a web app manifest JSON file, and it
  3. has a service worker script.

The service worker provides an opportunity for a nice bit of fun branding—if you lose your internet connection, the site provides a neat little maze game you can play. Cute!

That’s a fairly simple example of how service workers can enhance the user experience when the dreaded offline situation arises. But it strikes me that the travel industry is the perfect place to imagine other opportunities for offline enhancements.

Travel sites often provide itineraries—think airlines, trains, or hotels. The itineraries consist of places, times, and contact information. This is exactly the kind of information that you might find yourself trying to retrieve in an emergency situation, like maybe in a cab on the way to the airport or train station. Perhaps you’re stuck in traffic, in a tunnel. Or maybe you don’t have a data plan for the country you’re currently in. Either way, wouldn’t it be great if you could hit the website for your airline or hotel and get your itinerary, even if you’re offline.

Alright, let’s think this through…

Let’s assume that an individual itinerary has its own URL. That URL is a web page of information, mostly text, with perhaps an image or two (like a map). Now when you make your booking, let’s have the service worker cache that URL (and its assets) for offline access.

Hmm …but there’s a good chance that the device you make the booking on is not the same device that you’d have with you out and and about. Because caches are local to the browser, that’s a problem.

Okay, but of these kinds of sites have some kind of log-in mechanism. So we could update the log-in flow a bit: when a user logs in, check to see if they have any itineraries assigned to them, and if they do, fire off an event to the service worker (using postMessage) to cache the URLs of the itineraries.

Now that the itineraries are cached, the final step is to create a custom offline page. As well as the usual “Sorry, the internet’s down” message, we can say “Sorry, the internet’s down …but here are your itineraries”. (This is kind of like the pattern you see on blogs like mine, Ethan’s, or Mike’s—a custom offline page that lists cached URLs of articles you’ve previously visited).

That’s just one pattern off the top of my head. It’s fun to imagine the different ways that service workers could be used to enhance the experience of just about any site, but they seem particularly relevant to travel sites—dodgy internet connections and travelling go hand-in-hand. At Clearleft, we’ve been working with quite a few travel-related clients lately so that’s why these scenarios are on my mind: booking holidays, flights, and so on. But, as I’ve said before and I’ll say again, every website can benefit from becoming a progressive web app.

Monday, November 27th, 2017

Escape the News with the British Podcast “In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg” | The New Yorker

A lovely profile of the lovely In Our Time.

In part because “In Our Time” is unconnected to things that are coming out, things happening right this minute, things being promoted, it feels aligned with the eternal rather than the temporal, and is therefore escapist without being junk.

Anyone remember the site After Our Time?

Sunday, November 19th, 2017

How the BBC News website has changed over the past 20 years - BBC News

Two decades redesigning/realigning the BBC News home page.

Monday, October 2nd, 2017

When the news goes sideways – James Donohue – Medium

The BBC has been experimenting with some alternative layouts for some articles on mobile devices. Read on for the details, but especially for the philosophical musings towards the end—this is gold dust:

Even the subtext of Google’s marketing push around Progressive Web Apps is that mobile websites must aspire to be more like native apps. While I’m as excited about getting access to previously native-only features such as offline support and push notifications as the next web dev, I’m not sure that the mobile web should only try to imitate the kind of user interfaces that we see on native.

Do mobile websites really dream of being native apps, any more than they dreamt of being magazines?

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

Patterns Day 2017: Sareh Heidari on Vimeo

Time for another video from Patterns Day. Here’s Sareh Heidari walking us through Grandstand, the CSS framework at the BBC.

Wednesday, June 7th, 2017

A day without Javascript

Charlie conducts an experiment by living without JavaScript for a day.

So how was it? Well, with just a few minutes of sans-javascript life under my belt, my first impression was “Holy shit, things are fast without javascript”. There’s no ads. There’s no video loading at random times. There’s no sudden interrupts by “DO YOU WANT TO FUCKING SUBSCRIBE?” modals.

As you might expect, lots of sites just don’t work, but there are plenty of sites that work just fine—Google search, Amazon, Wikipedia, BBC News, The New York Times. Not bad!

This has made me appreciate the number of large sites that make the effort to build robust sites that work for everybody. But even on those sites that are progressively enhanced, it’s a sad indictment of things that they can be so slow on the multi-core hyperpowerful Mac that I use every day, but immediately become fast when JavaScript is disabled.

Friday, May 19th, 2017

Checked in at Rösttrommel Kaffeerösterei