Monday, August 23rd, 2021
Saturday, August 7th, 2021
The paradox of performance:
This era of incredibly fast hardware is also the era of programs that take tens of seconds to start from an SSD or NVMe disk; of bloated web applications that take many seconds to show a simple list, even on a broadband connection; of programs that process data at a thousandth of the speed we should expect. Software is laggy and sluggish — and the situation shows little signs of improvement. Why is that?
Because we prioritise the developer experience over the user experience, that’s why:
Although our job is ostensibly to create programs that let users do stuff with their computers, we place a greater emphasis on the development process and dev-oriented concerns than on the final user product.
We would do well to heed Craig’s observations on Fast Software, the Best Software.
Wednesday, July 14th, 2021
Thursday, July 1st, 2021
Hosting online events
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.
Tuesday, June 29th, 2021
Flat, minimalist, clean, material - whatever you want to call it - is an annoying antipattern. Computers are here to make life easier for humans. Removing affordances is just a nasty thing to do to your users.
Wednesday, June 23rd, 2021
I got a notification on my phone on Monday.
For most people this would be an unremarkable occurence. For me it’s quite unusual. I’ve written before about my relationship with notifications:
If I install an app on my phone, the first thing I do is switch off all notifications. That saves battery life and sanity.
The only time my phone is allowed to ask for my attention is for phone calls, SMS, or FaceTime (all rare occurrences). I initiate every other interaction—Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, the web. My phone is a tool that I control, not the other way around.
In short, I allow notifications from humans but never from machines. I am sometimes horrified when I see other people’s phones lighting up with notifications about email, tweets, or—God help us—news stories. I try not to be judgemental, but honestly, how does anyone live like that?
The next version of iOS will feature focus modes allowing you to toggle when certain notifications are allowed. That’s a welcome addition, but it’s kind of horrifying that it’s even necessary. It’s like announcing a new padded helmet that will help reduce the pain the next time you choose to hit your own head with a hammer. It doesn’t really address the underlying problem.
Anyway, I made an exception to my rule about not allowing notifications from non-humans. Given the exceptional circumstances of The Situation, I have allowed notifications from the NHS COVID-19 app.
And that’s why I got a notification on my phone on Monday.
It said that I had come into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 and that I would need to self-isolate until midnight on Friday. I haven’t been out of the house much at all—and never indoors—so I think it must be because I checked into a seafront bar last week for an outdoor drink; the QR code for the venue would’ve encompased both the indoor and outdoor areas.
Even though it wasn’t part of the advice for self-isolation, I got a lateral flow test to see if I was actually infected.
I did the test and I can confidentally say that I would very much like to never repeat that experience.
The test was negative. But I’m still going to stick to the instructions I’ve been given. In fact, that’s probably why testing isn’t part of the recommended advice; I can imagine a lot of people getting a negative test and saying, “I’m sure I’m fine—I don’t need to self-isolate.”
So I won’t be leaving the house until Saturday. This is not a great inconvenience. It’s not like I had many plans. But…
This is why, for the final day of UX Fest, I will be performing my hosting duties from the comfort of my own home instead of the swankier, more professional environment of the Clearleft studio. I hope I don’t bring the tone down too much.
I also had to turn down an invitation to play some tunes with two fully vaccinated fellow musicians on Friday. It felt a bit strange to explain why. “I’d love to, but my phone says I have to stay in.”
I feel like I’m in that Bruce Sterling short story Maneki Neko, obedientally taking orders from my pokkecon.
Thursday, June 10th, 2021
Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons
I remember trying to convince people to use semantic markup because it’s good for accessibility. That tactic didn’t always work. When it didn’t, I would add “By the way, Google’s searchbot is indistinguishable from a screen-reader user so semantic markup is good for SEO.”
That usually worked. It always felt unsatisfying though. I don’t know why. It doesn’t matter if people do the right thing for the wrong reasons. The end result is what matters. But still. It never felt great.
It happened with responsive design and progressive enhancement too. If I couldn’t convince people based on user experience benefits, I’d pull up some official pronouncement from Google recommending those techniques.
AMP is currently dying, which is good news. Google have announced that core web vitals will be used to boost ranking instead of requiring you to publish in their proprietary AMP format. The really good news is that the political advantage that came with AMP has also been ported over to core web vitals.
Take user-hostile obtrusive overlays. Perhaps, as a contientious developer, you’ve been arguing for years that they should be removed from the site you work on because they’re so bad for the user experience. Perhaps you have been met with the same indifference that I used to get regarding semantic markup.
Well, now you can point out how those annoying overlays are affecting, for example, the cumulative layout shift for the site. And that number is directly related to SEO. It’s one thing for a department to over-ride UX concerns, but I bet they’d think twice about jeopardising the site’s ranking with Google.
I know it doesn’t feel great. It’s like dealing with a bully by getting an even bigger bully to threaten them. Still. Needs must.
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?
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.
Monday, June 7th, 2021
Bringing Dark Patterns to Light. Transcript of the speech I gave at the… | by Harry Brignull | Jun, 2021 | Medium
Harry gave a speech at the Federal Trade Commission’s Dark Patterns workshop in April. Here’s the transcript, posted to Ev’s blog.
When I first worked on Dark Patterns in 2010, I was quite naive. I thought that they could be eradicated by shaming the companies that used them, and by encouraging designers to use a code of ethics.
The fact that we’re here today means that approach didn’t work.
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.
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.
Sunday, June 6th, 2021
Denise shares a cautionary tale of service design gone wrong.
Thursday, June 3rd, 2021
Jesse has his Oppenheimer moment, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
What got lost along the way was a view of UX as something deeper and more significant than a step in the software delivery pipeline: an approach that grounds product design in a broad contextual understanding of the problem and goes beyond the line-item requirements of individual components. Also lost along the way were many of the more holistic and exploratory practices that enabled UX to deliver that kind of foundational value.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- @media 2007 Hot Topics Panel
- Building Portable Social Networks at SxSW 2008,
- @media 2010 Hot Topics Panel,
- Mobilism 2011 Mobile Browser Panel,
- @media 2011 Hot Topics Panel.
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.
Monday, May 10th, 2021
The Clearleft podcast is currently between seasons, but that’s not going to stop me from yapping on in audio files at any opportunity.
I’ve been continuing my audio narration of Jay Hoffman’s excellent Web History series over on CSS tricks. We’re eight chapters in already! That’s a good few hours of audio—each chapter is over half an hour long.
The latest chapter was a joy to narrate. It’s all about the history of CSS so I remember many of the events that are mentioned, like when Tantek saved the web by implenting doctype switching (seriously, I honestly believe that if that hadn’t happened, CSS wouldn’t have “won”). Eric is in there. And Molly. And Elika. And Chris. And Dave.
If you’re not completely sick of hearing my voice, you can also listen to the latest episode of the Object Oriented UX podcast with Sophia V. Prater. Our chat starts about eleven minutes into the episode and goes on for a good hour.
It was nice to be on the other side of the microphone, so to speak. The topic was Resilient Web Design but the conversation went in all sorts of directions.
I do enjoy a good natter. If you’ve got a podcast and you fancy having a chat, let me know.
Friday, May 7th, 2021
I enjoyed this conversation with Sophia (our chat starts around the 11 minute mark) prompted by Resilient Web Design.
Sunday, April 11th, 2021
I click the link. The page loads fast. I navigate the surprisingly sparse yet clear form inputs. And complete the whole thing in less than thirty seconds.
Oh, how I wish this experience weren’t remarkable!
Simple forms with clear labels. Little to no branding being shoved down my throat. No array of colors, big logos, or overly-customized UI components.
Thursday, April 8th, 2021
The state of UX
There is much introspection and navel-gazing in the world of user experience design. More than usual, I mean.
Jesse James Garrett recently said:
I don’t think I know anyone that’s been in UX more than a decade who’s happy with how it’s going.
Mark Hurst wrote Why I’m losing faith in UX. Too hot!
Scott Berkun wrote How To Put Faith in Design. Too cold!
Peter Merholz wrote Waking up from the dream of UX. Just right!
As an aside, does it bother anyone else that the Goldilocks story violates the laws of thermodynamics?
Anyway, this hand-wringing around the role of UX today seemed like a suitably hot topic for one of our regular roundtable chats at Clearleft. We invited Peter along too and he was kind enough to give us his time.
It was a fun discussion. Peter pointed out that whenever he hears an older designer bemoaning the current state of design, he has to wonder what’s happened in their lives to make them feel that way (it’s like when people complain about the music of today and how it’s not as good as the music of whatever time period I was a teenager). And let’s face it, the good ol’ days weren’t so good for everyone. It was overwhelmingly dominated by privileged white dudes. The more that changes, the better …and it needs to change far, far more.
There was a general agreement that the current gnashing of teeth isn’t unique to UX. It’s something that just about any discipline will inevitably go through. Peter’s epiphany was to compare it with the hand-wringing around Agile:
The frustration exhibited with the “dream of UX” is (I think) identical to the frustration the original Agile community sees with how it has been industrialized (koff-SAFe-koff).
Perhaps the industrialisation of what once a cottage industry is the price of success. But that’s not necessarily bad, as long as you industrialise the right things. If UX has become the churning out of wireframes at scale, then something has gone very wrong. If UX has become the implementation of dark patterns at scale, then something has gone very wrong.
In some organisations, perhaps that’s exactly what’s happened. In which case, I can totally understand the disillusionment. But in other places, I see the opposite happening. I see UX designers bringing questions of ethics to the forefront. I see UX designers—dare I say it?—having their proverbial seat at the table.
Chris went so far as to claim that we are in fact in a golden age of user experience design. Controversial! But think about it, he said. Over the next few days, pay attention to interactions you have with technology, and consider the thought and skill that has gone into them.
I had Chris’s provocation in mind when I wrote about booking my vaccination appointment:
I just need to get in, accomplish my task, and get out again. This is where the World Wide Web shines.
Maybe Chris is right. Maybe the golden age of UX is here. It’s just not evenly distributed. Yet.
It’s an interesting time for the discipline of user experience design. I’ve always maintained that the best way to get a temperature check for your chosen field is to go to a really good conference. If you’re a UX designer and you want to understand the state of the UX nation, you should get a ticket for the online UX Fest in June. See you there!